Court Orders Police Shooters' Names Withheld

Despite case law and a California Attorney General's opinion to the contrary, the Long Beach police union got a local judge's order last week barring the city from releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, reports Victoria Kim in the Los Angeles Times:

It marks at least the third time in the last two years in which a Southern California police union has contended in court that officers' names should not be released because of safety and privacy concerns.

The Long Beach Police Officers Assn. filed the request for the order after a Times reporter asked the city under the California Public Records Act for names of officers involved in shootings since 2005. The Times request covered a Dec. 12 shooting in which police shot and killed a man holding a hose nozzle resembling a gun.

Thursday's order by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Di Loreto blocks the city from releasing the names until a Jan. 18 hearing.

Long Beach City Atty. Robert Shannon said the city was getting ready to release some, but not all, names of officers to The Times on Jan. 10. He said the city's policy since a 2006 state Supreme Court decision has been that officers' names may be released once all administrative and criminal proceedings have been concluded.

Union attorney James Trott contended in court filings that releasing the names "poses a great threat to the safety of officers from many fronts" and should be withheld even after all reviews have been completed.

Trott wrote that the department reassigned an officer because of threats after an officer-involved shooting in North Long Beach. He argued that because of the internet, an officer's name can lead to "would-be bad guys" discovering the officer's photograph, address or family information.

Los Angeles Times Editor Russ Stanton said the public should have access to the information because it would allow for the independent examination of the conduct and tactics of police officers. "There is a strong public interest in having these records released," Stanton said.

Two other police unions in the county have recently argued in court that names of officers involved in shootings were protected personnel information and should be blocked from public release.

Pasadena's police union sued the city in March 2009 on the eve of a news conference at which city officials were planning to release the names of two officers who shot and killed an armed suspect during a traffic stop. Earlier this year, a union representing Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies intervened in a lawsuit filed by The Times against the Sheriff's Department seeking the names of deputies involved in three separate shootings 2009.

In the sheriff's case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled in March that The Times was entitled to the names, finding that the officers' names were "not protected as a personnel record."

"It hardly needs mentioning that there is an important public interest in the disclosure of the identities of officers involved in a shooting incident," the judge wrote, noting that "the public interest is paramount where an officer has fired a weapon."

The case remains pending after the Assn. of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs appealed Chalfant's ruling rejecting their attempt to intervene in the case.

In the Pasadena case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Palmer ruled the issue moot after the officers were identified in a Times article and later named in federal court filings.

News organizations frequently publish the names of officers involved in shootings. In fact, it is the Los Angeles Police Department's policy to release the names of such officers.

Long Beach police union president Steve James wrote in a declaration filed with the court that he was concerned that releasing the names of officers could threaten "the well-being of the officers or their families."

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