Crime & Justice

California Supreme Court justices question if the names of police officers involved in shootings can be witheld

Steven James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association.
Steven James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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5:50 p.m.: Justices question if the names of police officers can be kept from the public

The California Supreme Court indicated that it's inclined to favor the public's right to know the names of officers involved in shootings.

In oral arguments Tuesday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye suggested the California Public Records Act favors disclosure and does not allow for blanket exemptions. Listen to raw audio from the proceedings below.

One justice pointed out that police wear identifying name plates in public, and another questioned whether agencies would withhold names in heroic situations.

The case stems from a 2010 public records request from a Los Angeles Times reporter that was rejected by the Long Beach Police Department.

The police union and other law enforcement organizations fought the request, arguing they were concerned for the officers' lives and saying state law calls for privacy in police personnel matters.

The newspapers, the ACLU and others argue that the names are subject to disclosure under California's public records act.

6:01 a.m.: California Supreme Court set to hear case seeking to block names of police officers involved in shootings

The California Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could decide whether the names of police officers involved in shootings are public records. The case involving Long Beach police officers and Southern California newspapers that pits the privacy rights of cops versus the public's right to know.

It started when two Long Beach police officers shot and killed Douglas Zerby, 35, in December 2010 while he sat on the front porch of a friend’s home. A 911 caller reported seeing a gun in his hand but Zerby was actually holding a black garden hose nozzle. Officers fired about a dozen shots at him.

Not long after the shooting, a Los Angeles Times reporter requested the names of the officers involved and the names of all Long Beach police officers involved in shootings from 2005 to 2010.

The Long Beach Police Officers Association, a union that represents rank-and-file officers, filed a lawsuit against the city of Long Beach in order to block the names from being made public.

The LBPOA argues the names of officers involved in shootings and other incidents where force is used are part of personnel records and investigations, both of which are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

Related: Should identities of police officers involved in shootings be kept secret?

A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the newspaper and ordered the city of Long Beach to produce the records. The California Second District Court of Appeal later affirmed the lower court ruling.

“As the trial court observed, the Times's request sought only the identity of officers involved in shootings; it did not seek protected ‘information about whether these officers were disciplined, promoted, or about how the shootings affected the officers' performance evaluations,’ ” wrote Justice Kathryn Doi Todd in the opinion issued on Feb. 7, 2012. 

In the petition for review to the state Supreme Court, attorneys representing the LBPOA wrote that some Long Beach officers were verbally threatened with phone calls to their homes. The union said the Internet group “Anonymous” joined a second group to post online the personal information of six Long Beach officers that were involved in shootings or incidents in which force was used.

“The reality is that the disclosure of a ‘mere’ name allows for access to personal information on the Internet, and this information can be procured with relative ease,” attorneys for the LBPOA wrote.

The State Supreme Court will hear the arguments in San Francisco starting at 9 a.m.

This story will be updated.

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