Officers' names involved in critical incidents must be disclosed, attorney general says

The public generally has a right to know the names of police officers involved in critical incidents, including those involving lethal force, according to a recently released opinion by the state Attorney General's Office.

The opinion is a reversal in fortune for media access advocates who have battled the issue in the courts for years.

At the heart of the issue is balancing the public's right to keep watch over the men and women responsible for enforcing the law and the rights to privacy and security of the law enforcers themselves. The opinion, released Tuesday by California Attorney General Jerry Brown, was rendered in response to a request from Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco.

Brown reasoned that the California Supreme Court's 2006 decision in Copley Press Inc. v. Superior Court of San Diego did not overrule the "central holding" of a 1997 California Appellate Court decision New York Times Co. v. Superior Court that a peace officer's name is generally subject to disclosure.

The court ruled in the New York Times case that the name of an officer involved in an incident must be disclosed if the disclosure would not reveal confidential information from an officer's personnel file or endanger the integrity of the investigation or the safety of the officer. The Copley case was more restrictive, ruling that an officer's name may be kept confidential if it is sought in connection with information pertaining to confidential matters such as an internal investigation or disciplinary proceedings.

In the wake of the 2006 Copley decision, numerous law enforcement agencies across the state denied public records requests for the names of police officers, basing their denials on the 2006 Copley decision, which they interpreted as prohibiting them from disclosing disciplinary records and from opening disciplinary hearings to the public because the proceedings are considered confidential personnel records.

Many cities, including Los Angeles, have argued that the Copley decision simply does not allow the names to be made public.

But releasing the name of an officer involved in a critical incident, such as a shooting, would "merely communicate a statement of fact that the named officers were involved in the incident," Brown wrote. Disclosing the information would not reveal confidential information in an officer's personnel file or imply any judgment on the officer's actions, Brown argued.

Brown noted the public's interest in the identities and activities of its law enforcement officers has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

"The public's legitimate interest in the identity and activities of peace officers is even greater than its interest in those of the average public servant. 'Law enforcement officers carry upon their shoulders the cloak of authority to enforce the laws of the state. In order to maintain trust in its police department, the public must be kept fully informed of the activities of its peace officers,'" the Copley decision said, quoting the New York Times decision.

In his opinion, Brown notes there may be certain circumstances where the potential danger to the officer or to the crimefighting mission would outweigh the public's right to know the officer's identity.

A situation involving an undercover officer or an incident involving a gang member where there is a significant risk of retribution against the officer from other gang members, Brown said a law enforcement agency could make the argument there is a "clear overbalance on the side of confidentiality," but barring that, the name of the officer must be released.

Legislation to reopen disciplinary hearings and records of police officers to the public floundered in a key state Assembly committee last year, failing to get a single vote after being faced with adamant opposition by law-enforcement groups.

Sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, the legislation drew opposing testimony from dozens of police officers from Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, Berkeley and Modesto. Many of the officers argued that disclosure of officers' personnel information would put their lives in jeopardy.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7829 or kedds@ocregister.com

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