Is the public entitled to know who has been granted police powers in California?
Or are cops entitled to, as they claim, near-national-security-level secrecy about such basic information as their names and what department employs them?
These were the type of questions the California Supreme Court recently debated thanks to a fight between the Los Angeles Times and police departments and their lobbying groups.
Using the state’s public-records act, the Times asked California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to release the names, employing departments, and hiring and termination dates of police officers statewide. The agency refused to comply, claiming that any information in a cop’s personnel file is “confidential.”
(Comprised of former cops, POST is a state agency charged with establishing standards of physical, mental and moral fitness for cops. In exchange for taxpayer funds, 626 police departments are required to obey the agency’s minimum standards and allow records inspections. Though it’s not always apparent, these safeguards were instituted to prevent departments from hiring organized-crime associates, felons or political cronies.)
The Times sued POST, and a Superior Court judge in Sacramento County, where the agency sits, said the records are public information. Police went ballistic, claiming public knowledge of their names “jeopardizes” their safety. The California attorney general, California State Sheriff’s Association, California Police Chiefs Association, California Peace Officers Association, the Legal Defense Fund for Peace Officers Research Association of California and POST took the issue to a state court of appeal and won a reversal in April 2005. A three-judge panel said it was “a matter of common sense” that the public was not entitled to know the identities of police officers. They relied on a statute that says peace-officer personnel records may not be disclosed except under certain circumstances. This court believed that an officer's name constitutes his or her protected "employment history."
But the Times didn’t quit. Using the First Amendment law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine [full disclosure: they've represented OC Weekly] and support from The Orange County Register, the paper appealed to California’s highest court. On Aug. 27, 2007, a majority of the justices told police what they didn’t want to hear. Among other points: “Although a comparatively low-ranking government official, a patrolman’s office, if abused, has great potential for social harm and thus invites independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds the position.” They ruled that there is nothing in the law that allows police to block public access to information sought by the Times. The police view “would result in absurd consequences,” they wrote in a 30-page decision signed by Chief Justice Ronald George, a Republican.
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“We do not believe the legislature intended that a public agency be able to shield information from public disclosure simply by placing it in a [cop’s personnel] file,” the opinion stated. “The names of all public employees are viewed as public information under both state and federal law. . . . 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.”
Justice Ming W. Chin wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that release of a cop's name would violate a statute prohibiting disclosure of information concerning "the official performance or professional qualifications of a peace office."
Times officials say reporter Ted Rohrlich originally requested the cop information in 2002 to determine whether and why officers might be hired by one police agency after being fired from another agency.
In a separate but related ruling involving the Contra Costa Times, the supreme court sided against public employee unions which wanted to keep secret the names and pay of Oakland government employees who made $100,000 a year or more.