FORMER LOS ANGELES Police Officer Bill Rhetts opened fire on three suspects during the 1990s. He shot and killed a gang member who had fired a handgun at him. He shot and paralyzed another man carrying a pistol. He wounded a teenager brandishing what turned out to be a BB gun. Then, after leaving the LAPD for the Riverside Police Department, he shot an unarmed suspect hiding in a doghouse.
We know about Rhetts' unusually prolific history of gunplay because for the last 25 years, police records of officer-involved shootings have been made available to the public. But under a troubling policy implemented silently last December and upheld Wednesday by the Los Angeles Police Commission, the names of officers involved in shootings and in many other uses of force (including with batons and even fists) will be kept secret. The public will never know about the next Rhetts, or whether individual LAPD officers develop a history of violence.
The commission's decision is an example of special-interest politics at its worst. The disclosure policy has worked well in allowing the media and the public to scrutinize the use of deadly force. But now the commission has undermined accountability by replacing openness with secrecy.
The policy of disclosing the names of officers involved in shootings was adopted after the killing of Eulia Mae Love by Los Angeles police in 1979. Officers inexplicably shot and killed Love as she was standing in front of her home complaining about an unpaid utility bill, saying she threatened them with a kitchen knife. The incident revealed a serious problem with the use of deadly force in Los Angeles; to increase accountability, the Police Commission required that the identity of officers be disclosed.
By knowing the officers' names, the media can track their conduct and see if some are repeatedly and disproportionately involved in deadly incidents. For example, in 2004, a Los Angeles Times study revealed that 1% of the Los Angeles Police Department's officers were involved in 20% of all shootings.
What is most troubling is that there is no good reason to keep the names secret. The city attorney's office has argued that the identities of officers in these reports are personnel information and therefore must be kept secret according to California law. Yet as the city attorney's memo also notes, the case law is conflicting, and several challenges are now before the California Supreme Court.
No court in California has ever suggested that Los Angeles' policy violates state law. Until and unless a court decides otherwise, there is no legal reason for the Police Commission to change a very desirable policy.
Nor do privacy concerns trump the public's right to know. Officers should have no reasonable expectation that their identity will be secret when they fire their weapons. Being subjected to scrutiny is an important aspect of government service at all levels. Nowhere is it more crucial than with regard to one of the most important things done by any government official: using deadly force.
ADDITIONALLY, courts in other contexts have rejected that individuals have a privacy claim to safeguard the secrecy of their identities. Attorneys, for example, must protect client confidences, but the identity of the client is generally not regarded as protected by confidentiality.
The fact that an officer was involved in a shooting is a matter of essential public concern, not a secret matter of interest only to the officer and the department. Officers wear their names on their uniforms, and it is inappropriate for the Police Commission to mandate secrecy over a fact that anyone who is present at a shooting can see.
The policy of openness was applied successfully for more than 25 years. The only group seeking a change is the Police Protective League, the police union. In a misguided attempt to immunize some of its members from scrutiny, the union long has pushed for secrecy of information that might embarrass or provide a basis for criticizing officers. The union has enormous political influence, and it got what it sought.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned for office, in part, on promises to reform the LAPD. It is particularly disappointing to see him break this promise by caving in to pressure from the police union and supporting reinstatement of a secrecy policy that was rejected more than a quarter of a century ago.
Villaraigosa and the Police Commission should abandon this misguided attempt to shield officers from sunlight. But if it continues, the City Council should use its powers under the City Charter to veto the new policy and to insist on openness and accountability.