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Privacy risk to police unclear

Opponents of efforts to restore public access to disciplinary reports offer no examples of actual harm to officers.

July 03, 2007|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Despite convincing state lawmakers last week that permitting public access to police disciplinary files would endanger lives, law enforcement advocacy groups have been unable to identify a single case in which an officer actually had been harmed because of the release of such information.

Police officers from all over California lined up to warn a key Assembly committee that releasing the names of those accused of misconduct would put their lives in jeopardy.

"Keep our families safe," speaker after speaker said.

The argument resonated with lawmakers and essentially killed a bill that would have provided access to disciplinary records, such as when officers use excessive force, lie in court or make racial slurs.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), the Public Safety Committee chairman, said he was convinced that identifying officers involved in misconduct was "a real threat" to their safety. In an interview with The Times, he said he had been told of "numerous examples" where the release of an officer's identity in a discipline case directly led to officers and their families being harmed.

When asked to cite one such case, however, Solorio could not.

"It's one of the things where you hear so many you can't remember any," he said as he hurried to get off the phone.

Solorio wasn't alone.

The same police unions that raised the safety issue also were unable to identify a case in which the release of such information was used by a criminal or disgruntled citizen to hunt down, confront or hurt an officer or his loved ones.

First Amendment and government accountability advocates said they were stunned that a bill aimed at increasing the public's right to know about misbehaving cops was turned into an argument for police safety.

"It's really an effective tactic," said Thomas W. Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "When you don't have good arguments on the policy, you have to resort to fear, intimidation and in this case threats."

The bill, which was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), was aimed at overturning Copley Press Inc. vs. San Diego County Superior Court -- a state Supreme Court ruling last year that imposed restrictions on the release of police officer personnel information.

After the court's ruling, the Los Angeles Police Department changed its rules to prohibit access to information from disciplinary board meetings and other records that had been publicly available for decades.

Concern over the secrecy surrounding officer discipline heightened earlier this year when it was disclosed that an LAPD board -- meeting in private -- had cleared an officer of wrongdoing in the controversial fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy in 2005.

After that case, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton called for more transparency in officer discipline cases. In front of television cameras, they announced their support for Romero's bill.

But as attention to the issue faded, so did Villaraigosa and Bratton's support.

Romero said last week that she was disappointed the two leaders didn't take a more active role in lobbying for its passage. Without either the mayor or police chief leading the charge, the bill faced long odds.

Threat of reprisals

The bill unexpectedly made it out of the state Senate after lawmakers learned of an e-mail from a police union leader who threatened political reprisals against them if the measure were approved.

In the e-mail, John R. Stites, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., told a lobbyist that if the bill passed, his union would publicly oppose efforts to change California's term limits law.

The effort to alter term limits is a priority for many sitting legislators, who are trying to place an initiative on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot.

"Ensure that it be understood that this will only be the beginning," Stites wrote in the e-mail, which was circulated to law enforcement advocates and a few Capitol staffers.

The threat rankled lawmakers who approved the measure and sent it to the Assembly's Public Safety Committee for consideration, where it stalled without a vote. In additional to Solorio, the committee members are: Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton), Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) and Anthony J. Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge).

Some legislative observers said the apparent defeat of the bill was the result more of politics than policy.

Many lawmakers seemed reluctant to challenge the powerful police unions. Romero, for example, blamed the bill's failure in part on Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who remained silent on the issue and did not fill a vacancy on the committee with an advocate of open government.

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