Without any public discussion, the Los Angeles Police Commission decided two months ago to overturn a 25-year-old policy and begin withholding the names of police officers involved in shootings.
Commission President John W. Mack, who for years was a prominent civil rights activist noted for his insistence on holding officers accountable, said the commission made the change after being told that state law protects the privacy of officers.
In fact, while the law has long recognized an officer's right to privacy, it has also given police agencies wide discretion to release such information, legal experts said.
In Los Angeles, the Police Commission has released the names of officers involved in shootings since 1980, a practice embraced by the public after the controversial killing by LAPD officers of a South Los Angeles woman in 1979. Since then, the actions of LAPD officers involved in shootings have frequently been the object of intense public interest -- although police officers have routinely objected to being identified.
The change in commission policy was made during a closed-door meeting Dec. 13. The five-member civilian panel, which functions much like a corporate board for the Police Department, sets standards and oversees operations in conjunction with Chief William J. Bratton. It meets each Tuesday and usually makes decisions in public and by a majority vote. In this instance, it did neither.
Mack said in an interview last week that the commission changed the disclosure policy based on advice from a lawyer in the office of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who concluded that commissioners had no choice in the matter. Delgadillo, whose office had previously approved the release of officers' names, declined to be interviewed for this report.
On Friday, after inquiries from The Times, commission officials scheduled a public discussion of the policy change for today's meeting.
The commission's policy change had been in the making for nearly a year and was prompted, at least in part, by Police Commission Executive Director Richard Tefank, a former Buena Park police chief who has long said he believes the panel violates the law by releasing too much information about shootings. In a letter to the commission last week, Tefank summarized several state laws that he said indicate that officers' names "may" be deemed private personnel information.
His concerns were echoed by leaders of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers. Union officials said that they discussed the matter with Tefank and that he suggested they threaten litigation if they wanted to see a change in the commission's policy.
Tefank acknowledged advising the union to write a letter documenting its concerns but said he did not recall telling officials to threaten litigation.
"I don't believe I did it, but if they say I did, I mean, that's fine," Tefank said.
After receiving the union's letter in the spring of 2005, Tefank said, the commission sought a legal opinion from the city attorney.
Tefank said the commission received that opinion late last year. He said the city attorney concluded that officers' names had to be withheld from the public. Tefank said the commission discussed the matter at least twice in closed session -- the threat of a lawsuit, he added, made it legal for commissioners to discuss it privately. The commissioners, he said, voted unanimously to change the policy. In a subsequent interview, however, Tefank said there had been no formal vote and commissioners had merely agreed that the policy should be changed.
Tefank declined to provide a copy of the legal opinion.
A week after the policy change, the commission announced with much fanfare a plan to "provide greater transparency" by posting detailed summaries of police shootings on the Internet. Those summaries, however, do not contain the officers' names.
In touting its new approach to publicizing shooting details, the commission made no mention of its decision to withhold the identity of officers from other shooting reports.
"The irony of all this," Mack said, "is that, frankly, it's the commission's desire to really become more public in sharing with the public the decisions that we make in closed session regarding the use of force incidents that we consider every week."
The public reports in question are summaries written by the police chief, known in LAPD parlance as 15.2 reports. They were created in response to the 1979 shooting of Eulia Mae Love, a knife-wielding South Los Angeles housewife who was killed by police after a dispute over an unpaid gas bill.
Since then, the reports have been released as public documents. The commission reviews them when deciding whether an officer's use of deadly force complies with department rules.