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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

Only weeks before, Nunez had been a vocal critic of the LAPD's conduct during the MacArthur Park melee May 1, saying the officers who used hardened foam bullets and batons to clear the park should be held accountable. But he was mute on the bill that would have ultimately given the public access to the department's investigations into alleged misconduct.

The lobbying from police groups at the Assembly committee's hearing last week was intense. Police union leaders said that trial lawyers and reporters would mine the records to try to undercut the credibility of officers. They complained that recruiting would be hampered if officers' privacy weren't protected.

But the biggest concern voiced was safety.

Police officers lined up to express opposition to the bill. Many repeated the same phrase: "Keep our families safe." They said they feared the public release of their names would make them targets for bad guys.

Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, said afterward that he was aware of anecdotal evidence of officers being threatened or harmed by people who learned their names through disciplinary procedures. But he was unable to cite a case in which it had happened.

The person who would have such detail, he said, was police union attorney Everett L. Bobbitt. But, when contacted by The Times, Bobbitt didn't have the information either.

"If you want me to tell you that an officer got killed because of that information, I can't," said Bobbitt, who argued the Copley case before the state's high court.

Nor could Bobbitt point to a case in which an officer had been harmed or threatened.

"Does that mean the threat isn't there?" Bobbitt said. "Of course not."

No details given

Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney specializing in police employment, said in an interview Friday that she was aware of two cases, both in the Bay Area, in which officers had been threatened or harmed by someone who had learned their identities through the police disciplinary process.

Wilkinson declined to provide details about either case. One client asked her not to, and the other was on vacation and could not be reached for authorization, she said.

In Los Angeles, the names of police officers involved in discipline had been publicly disclosed for more than a quarter of a century before last year's court ruling.

Los Angeles Police Protective League officials have been unable to point to any case in which an officer was harmed as a result of such disclosure.

In addition to the release of disciplinary material, police union officials in Los Angeles also have raised concerns about officers' names being included in reports written after police shootings, something the LAPD had done for decades prior to the Copley ruling.

"Once you have that name, it's easy to locate residences and addresses. We're concerned about family safety and security," Hank Hernandez, general counsel for the police union said in an interview last year. "It has nothing to do with whether or not the media should have -- or the public should have -- access to this information."

Despite the withholding of officers' identities in shooting reports, their names are routinely included in news releases issued after officer-involved shootings. Also, officers are required to identify themselves in court if a criminal or civil case results from the use of force.

Hernandez also cited "officer safety" in his opposition to summaries of police shootings being posted on the Internet, even though they didn't include officers' names.

"The example I use is any jerk sitting in a cave in Afghanistan with access to the Internet can download it," he said.

Although supporters of Romero's bill agreed that police work can be dangerous and officers are sometimes targeted by gang members and other criminals because of what they do, few believed that those dangers increased by giving the public access to discipline records.

"It's a false argument," said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "Unfortunately, the committee members bought it."

After Romero's bill failed to get even a motion for consideration at the public safety hearing, Solorio, the chairman of the panel, had said Romero could reintroduce it this week.

The senator had planned to do so, amending some provisions to make it more acceptable to members.

But Romero said last week that Solorio reneged on his offer, effectively killing the issue for the current legislative session.

Romero said she would continue to fight for the public's right to know how police investigate and discipline their own.

"This is an issue of vital importance, and I'm not going to let it just go away," she said.

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