Public Records Law Does Not Protect Names Of Officers Involved In Shootings

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times asked the City of Long Beach to produce the names of Long Beach police officers involved in officer-involved shootings from January 1, 2005 to December 11, 2010. The Long Beach Police Officers Association, the bargaining agent for all Long Beach police officers, immediately sought an injunction to prevent the release of the names. When a trial court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the City from disclosing to the Times the names, the matter wound up in the California Supreme Court.

The Court ordered the release of names. The Court’s decision turned on three exemptions to the California Public Records Act. One exemption allows a public agency to “justify withholding any record by demonstrating that on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.” The second exemption shields from disclosure “personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” A third exemption protects “records, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law, including, but not limited to, provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege.”

The Court found that none of the exemptions applied. To begin with, the Court held, “many records routinely maintained by law enforcement agencies are not personnel records. For example, the information contained in the initial incident reports of an on-duty shooting are typically not ‘personnel records’ as that term is defined in the law. It may be true that such shootings are routinely investigated by the employing agency, resulting eventually in some sort of officer appraisal or discipline. But only the records generated in connection with that appraisal or discipline would come within the statutory definition of personnel records. We do not read the phrase ‘records relating to employee appraisal or discipline’ so broadly as to include every record that might be considered for purposes of an officer’s appraisal or discipline, for such a broad reading of the statute would sweep virtually all law enforcement records into the protected category of ‘personnel records.’

“The exemption from disclosure for ‘personnel or similar files’ if disclosure ‘would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy’ also does not apply. A serious question arises as to whether the names of peace officers involved in particular law enforcement incidents can be characterized as ‘personnel or similar files.’ Moreover, when it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer’s name, the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest. Peace officers hold one of the most powerful positions in our society; our dependence on them is high and the potential for abuse of power is far from insignificant. A police officer ‘possesses both the authority and the ability to exercise force.’ Misuse of this authority can result in significant deprivation of constitutional rights and personal freedoms, not to mention bodily injury and financial loss. Thus, the public’s significant interest in the conduct of its peace officers ‘diminishes and counterbalances’ an officer’s privacy interest in keeping his or her name confidential.”

The Court did indicate that in a particular case, the names of officers might be shielded from disclosure: “In a case such as this one, which concerns officer-involved shootings, the public’s interest in the conduct of its peace officers is particularly great because such shootings often lead to severe injury or death. Here, therefore, in weighing the competing interests, the balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure and against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved. Of course, if it is essential to protect an officer’s anonymity for safety reasons or for reasons peculiar to the officer’s duties – as, for example, in the case of an undercover officer – then the public interest in disclosure of the officer’s name may need to give way. That determination, however, would need to be based on a particularized showing, which was not made here.”

Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, 325 P.3d 460 (Cal. 2014).