By Jennifer Schlueter, Special to Beacon Media News
While some law enforcement agencies in California have generally been disclosing names of officers involved in on-duty shootings, others have considered it a safety concern and therefore withheld them.
Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, claimed that the department hasn’t “had any real issues” revealing the names. The Long Beach Police Department chose to keep the names private because the lives of the officers and their families could possibly be endangered.
However, on May 29, the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 to make the names of officers involved in a shooting public knowledge unless the disclosure would prove a credible safety concern for the officer.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard stated for the majority: “If it is essential to protect an officer’s anonymity for safety reasons or for reasons peculiar to the officer’s duties – as, for example, in the case of an undercover officer – then the public interest in disclosure of the officer’s name may need to give way. That determination, however, would need to be based on a particularized showing. Vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer names.”
Justice Ming W. Chin disagreed: “Absent a showing of some greater public need for the information, we should allow law enforcement agencies to protect the very officers who are out there every day protecting us. They deserve at least that much for their brave service.”
The court’s decision derived from a case that a Los Angeles Times reporter opened years ago.
In 2010, Douglas Zerby, 35, was fatally shot by LBPD officers because they misjudged the garden hose nozzle the victim was holding for a weapon. Thus, LA Times reporter Richard Winton asked for the names of the officers who killed Zerby by shooting him 12 times. Winston was supported by other media and unions that agree on the public’s right to know the officers’ names. The names have been revealed by LA attorneys.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell agrees with the court’s decision. He had leaned toward disclosing the officers’ names in 2010, which was however prevented by the police union.
“Too often,” McDonnell explained in an email to the LA Times, “law enforcement treats the vast majority of what it does as secret and dissuades public involvement, when in fact very little need be kept confidential and the engagement of our community should be embraced and welcomed.”