The California Supreme Court ruled in San Francisco today that police departments can sometimes be required to disclose the names of officers who participated in on-duty shootings.
The court, in a case arising from a fatal shooting in Long Beach in 2010, said in a 6-1 vote that departments don’t have an automatic right to keep the names of officers secret.
But it said that cities and their police departments can argue that in a particular case, an officer would be endangered if his or her name were disclosed.
“When it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer’s name, the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest,” Justice Joyce Kennard wrote.
The case before the court concerned the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Douglas Zerby, 35, by two Long Beach officers on Dec. 12, 2010. The officers were responding to a call in which a neighbor said an intoxicated man was brandishing a gun.
Zerby, who found to have sustained 12 gunshot wounds, turned out to have been holding the nozzle of a garden hose.
The Los Angeles Times, later joined by other media and the American Civil Liberties Union, sought to learn the officers’ names. The city and the Long Beach Police Officers Association opposed the disclosure, arguing the officers could be threatened or harmed.
The city and union contended the officers were entitled to an exemption under California’s Public Records Act of 1968, which generally requires disclosure of government records but allows exceptions when the public interest would not be served.
But the court majority said an exception should be granted in officer-involved shooting cases only when there is evidence that a particular officer or officer’s family would be endangered.
“Vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer names,” Kennard wrote.
The Legislature “has not gone so far as to protect the names of all officers involved in such shootings,” Kennard said in the decision.
The city and union appealed to the state high court after a Los Angeles County Superior Court trial judge and a state appeals court declined to issue an injunction blocking the disclosure.
In the Zerby case, the names of officers Victor Ortiz and Jeffrey Shurtleff were eventually revealed when the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office issued a report in December 2011 that concluded the officers had acted in self-defense and would not be prosecuted.
Zerby’s family went ahead with a civil lawsuit against Long Beach in federal court in Santa Ana and last year won a $6.5 million verdict, which the city is now appealing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News