On December 12, 2010, Long Beach police officers shot and killed Douglas Zerby, an intoxicated, unarmed 35-year-old man who was carrying a garden hose nozzle that officers mistook for a gun. Following the shooting, a reporter made a public records act request to the City seeking the names of the officers involved in the shooting.

The City notified the Long Beach Police Officers Association of the request. The Association then filed a lawsuit against the City, seeking an injunction preventing the release of the names. The dispute wound up in the California Court of Appeals.

The Court held that the names of the officers were not protected from disclosure. The Court reasoned that the reporter’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. Because the disclosure of the name of an officer who was involved in a shooting does not reveal any information about the officer’s advancement, appraisal, or discipline, the officer’s name is not protected by the law.

“The public interest in the conduct of peace officers is substantial: 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 his authority can result in significant deprivation of constitutional rights and personal freedoms, not to mention bodily injury and financial loss. An officer’s privacy interest in maintaining the confidentiality of his or her name does not outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure.”

The Court recognized that “in certain circumstances protecting the anonymity of a peace officer may outweigh the public interest in disclosure.” However, the Court concluded that the evidence in the case showed nothing “beyond the generalized and speculative invocation of fear that someone, somewhere – for example, a family member of a shooting victim – may ultimately use names that are disclosed as stepping stones to find the officers and hurt them or their families. A mere assertion of possible endangerment does not `clearly outweigh’ the public interest in access to those records.”

Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, 2012 WL 375326 (Cal.App. 2 Dist).

The above article has appeared in a previous issue of Public Safety Labor News and has been reprinted courtesy of Labor Relations Information System. These articles are for informational purposes only.

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