Names Of Officers In UC Davis Pepper Spray Incident Must Be Disclosed

The Federated University Police Officers Association represents University of California police officers. In the wake of a highly-publicized incident on November 18, 2011, involving the use by officers of pepper spray against protesting students, the State prepared both policy and investigatory reports into the incident. When two newspapers sought copies of the reports, the Association contended that the names of the officers involved in the incident should be redacted from the reports. When the newspapers refused to agree to the redaction, the dispute wound up in the California Court of Appeals.

The Court found no basis for the redaction of the officers’ names. The key question was whether the officers’ names were shielded from disclosure by the California Public Records Act. The Association argued that there were two broad categories of information protected from disclosure by the Act: (1) records relating to a mandated investigation of citizens’ complaints against an officer; and (2) police personnel records, meaning records maintained under an officer’s name by his or her employer and containing personal data and employment history, including disciplinary documentation.

The Court found that neither exemption applied to the pepper spray reports. The Court reasoned that “the reports here are not the result of an investigation of any citizen complaint. Moreover, nothing in the reports identifies any officer who was the subject of a citizen’s complaint, or who was disciplined in connection with the pepper spray incident. To the contrary, even if a citizen had submitted a complaint about a specific officer’s conduct in connection with the pepper spray incident, it is clear from the text of the reports that they were not prepared in response to any such complaint, but were prepared at the behest of the State for other purposes, and using entirely different protocols from those commonly involved in conducting disciplinary investigations or proceedings.

“Thus, unlike a citizen’s complaint procedure, which addresses a specific complaint about a specific police officer’s actions, the reports’ focus took a larger view and examined the internal workings of the UC and the UC Davis Police Department. They assessed how the policies and procedures that were in effect on November 18, 2011, influenced how the police officers handled the protestors, and whether institutional changes were appropriate. Most telling, while the reports make policy level recommendations, they expressly do not make any recommendations regarding whether it was appropriate to admonish or discipline any police officer in connection with the pepper spray incident. These facts demonstrate that the reports are not the result of a de facto investigation of a citizen’s complaint, and disclosing the redacted police officers’ names would reveal nothing about officer discipline.”

The Court also concluded that the reports were not “personnel records” exempt from disclosure, holding that “it is clear that the names of officers interviewed or involved in the pepper spray incident are not within the classes of information designated ‘personal data’ protected from disclosure. Indeed, police officers release their names to the public every day when they put on their uniforms, which are required to have name tags unless anonymity is required, such as officers who are working undercover. They routinely identify themselves when they go about their official duties – such as signing the tickets and citations they issue, writing police reports, and stating their names when they testify in open court.

“In this particular incident, the officers’ identities and actions with respect to the pepper spray incident were witnessed by hundreds of people and memorialized and widely distributed in the numerous photographs and videotape recordings taken by members of the public. The incident was the subject of numerous news accounts describing the actions of various officers, in some cases identifying the officers by name. The fact that certain officers involved in this incident might face an internal affairs investigation or discipline because of their actions does not transmute all of this information into disciplinary documentation or confidential personnel information, as the Association seems to claim. If we gave the exemption for confidential personnel records such a broad interpretation, the exemption would soon swallow up citizens’ disclosure rights, and defeat one of its central purposes – to ensure maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations.”

Federated University Police Officers Association v. Superior Court, 159 Cal. Rptr. 3d 541 (Cal. App. 2013).