Written by Melanie C. Smith   

On February 7, 2012, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District issued an opinion holding that the names of peace officers involved in shootings are not confidential as “personnel records.”  The case is Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, case no. B231245.

The case arose from a December 2010 incident in which Long Beach police officers shot and killed an intoxicated man who was holding a garden hose nozzle that from a distance the officers believed to be a gun.  A reporter for the Los Angeles Times made a request to the City of Long Beach under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for the names of the officers involved in that shooting, as well as the names of Long Beach officers involved in shootings for the preceding five years.  The Long Beach Police Officers Association (LBPOA) sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent the City from releasing the officers’ names.


The Times intervened in the case, and the trial court ruled in favor of the Times and denied the injunction requested by the LBPOA.  The court determined that the officers’ names were not protected as a part of the officers’ “personnel records,” and that the public interest in keeping the names private did not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the names.  The LBPOA and the City appealed, and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court decision.


The question in this case was whether the officers’ names had to be released in response to a request under the CPRA, Government Code § 6250 et seq., or whether the names were exempt from disclosure.  The LBPOA and the City argued that the names of officers involved in shootings are exempt from disclosure under Government Code § 6254(k) because they are part of the officers’ confidential personnel records under Penal Code § 832.7 and § 832.8, particularly because shootings are investigated internally.  The Court rejected this argument.


Prior cases have held that a peace officer’s identity alone is not confidential information, while a peace officer’s identity specifically in connection with an internal investigation or disciplinary action is confidential.  The Court in the Long Beach case held that when an officer’s identity is sought in connection with an incident like a shooting, the officer’s name cannot be deemed “confidential” just because the shooting was later investigated - releasing the officer’s name itself reveals nothing about the status of the investigation or any resulting disciplinary action.


The Court also rejected the LBPOA’s and the City’s arguments that general safety concerns justify withholding the officers’ names.  The Court recognized that there is substantial public interest in the conduct of police officers.  In particular cases, the facts and circumstances may demonstrate that anonymity is essential to an officer’s safety, but in this case the Court determined that the safety concerns presented by LBPOA and the City were too generalized and speculative to justify withholding the officers’ names.  There were no facts suggesting that the specific officers whose names were requested in this case have been threatened.

The Long Beach holding may have come as a disappointment to many, but it is not wholly surprising or unexpected, based on the holdings of previous cases.  Many law enforcement agencies in this state or across the country already choose to release the names of officers involved in shootings or other critical incidents even without a formal request.  Even in this case, the names of the officers involved in the December 2010 shooting were released when the District Attorney’s Office completed its criminal investigation, which is not confidential.


It should be kept in mind, however, that an officer’s name in connection with a critical incident may still be withheld if the agency can specifically demonstrate on a case-by-case basis (with evidence of actual threats, for example) that the officer’s anonymity is essential to his or her safety and that the need to protect the officer outweighs the considerable public interest in disclosure.


The General Counsel for RSA-LDT, Stone Busailah, LLP, participated in this case as Amicus Curiae for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, and wrote the League’s Amicus brief in the Court of Appeal.  A petition for review in the Supreme Court of California is pending.


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