A California court of appeal recently held that the names of police officers who were involved in shootings were not exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. (Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, — Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 2 Dist., February 7, 2012).
In December 2010, police officers with the Long Beach Police Department shot and killed an unarmed man. A reporter from Los Angeles Times Communications LLC (“Times”) made a request pursuant to the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) for the names of the officers involved in the shooting of the unarmed man, as well as the names of police officers involved in shootings from January 1, 2005, through December 11, 2010. The City of Long Beach (“City”) initially responded that it would comply with the request. The Long Beach Police Officers Association (“LBPOA”) filed a complaint against the City to stop it from releasing the names because of safety concerns. The trial court issued a temporary restraining order preventing the release of the officers’ names. The Times intervened in the action and thereafter City aligned itself with LBPOA. The trial court concluded that none of the statutory exemptions contained in the CPRA rendered the officers’ names confidential. The trial court dissolved the temporary restraining order and denied LBPOA’s request for an injunction.
The court of appeal upheld the trial court’s decision and ruled that the names of the officers were not rendered confidential by any exemption contained in the CPRA; therefore, the names should have been disclosed. The CPRA was enacted to increase “freedom of information by giving members of the public access to information in the possession of public agencies.” A “public record” is defined by the CPRA to include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” The CPRA provides that public records must be open to inspection and available upon request unless they are expressly exempt from disclosure by law.
The right to access public records is not absolute as there are statutory exemptions that protect certain records from disclosure. Personnel and medical files, for example, are expressly exempt because disclosure “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Also, expressly exempted from disclosure are “[r]ecords, 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.” There is also a catchall exemption, which provides that records that are not otherwise exempt “may be withheld if ‘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 court of appeal held that LBPOA failed to meet its burden of showing that the information sought by the Times—the names of the officers involved in shootings—was exempt from disclosure. The names of the officers are not exempt from disclosure under Penal Code section 832.7, which provides for the confidentiality of personnel records of peace officers. Personnel records are defined pursuant to section 832.8 as “any file maintained under that individual’s name by his or her employing agency and containing records relating to” personal data such as “marital status, family members, educational and employment history, home addresses, or similar information.” The court concluded that nowhere in section 832.7 or 832.8 or their legislative history is there any indication that the statutes “were designed to protect the confidentiality of officer names when those names are untethered to one of the specified components of the officer’s personnel file.”
An officer’s name is not typically private as it is displayed on his or her badge. The fact that the officer’s name is linked to an event such as a shooting is not personal to an officer in the same manner as information regarding marital status, employment history, or education. The name of an officer who was involved in a shooting may be provided without disclosure of any personal data from the officer’s personnel file.
Penal Code section 832.8 also exempts from disclosure information relating to employee advancement, appraisal, or discipline. The City’s internal policy requires an internal investigation of an officer who is involved in an incident or shooting that can result in disciplinary action against the officer. Based on this policy, the LBPOA argued the officers’ names are exempt from disclosure. However, the Times asked only for the identity of the officers not for information about whether those officers were subject to discipline or other employment-related consequences. “Because the disclosure of the name of an officer does not reveal any information about the officer’s advancement, appraisal or discipline, the officer’s name is not protected” under this statute. Furthermore, the information does not relate to any complaint or investigation against the officers regarding the shooting. Therefore, the information is not exempt under the provision exempting complaints or investigations of complaints concerning an event in which an officer participated or allegedly participated.
Finally, the court concluded disclosure of the requested information did not impose an unwarranted invasion on the officers’ personal privacy. “The public interest in the conduct of peace officers is substantial.” The privacy interest of an officer “in maintaining the confidentiality of his or her name does not outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure.” Also, LBPOA’s assertion of possible threats against the officers was inadequate to prevent disclosure because LBPOA failed to present evidence that disclosure of the names would jeopardize their safety. LBPOA failed to show that the officers’ interest in nondisclosure outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure.
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Mona G. Ebrahimi | 916.321.4500