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L.A. County Sheriff's Department ordered to name deputies in three killings

Superior Court judge rules that California confidentiality law does not bar disclosure of such information.

March 20, 2010|By Jack Leonard

A Los Angeles County judge ordered the Sheriff's Department on Friday to make public the names of deputies involved in three controversial shootings, concluding that state law generally requires law enforcement agencies to disclose the identities of officers who use deadly force.

Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant made the ruling in response to a court filing by The Times that sought the names, ranks, assignments and years of employment of the deputies in the three deadly confrontations last year. In at least two of the shootings, suspects were unarmed when they were fatally shot.

Advocates of open government hailed Friday's decision as an important ruling on a contentious issue that has pitted the privacy rights of police officers against the public's right to hold government accountable.

"It is a very significant case," said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, a nonprofit group that seeks open access to government meetings and records. "When someone shoots -- or shoots at -- another person, the name of the shooter has to be available to the public no matter who he or she is."

Chalfant concluded that the identities of officers involved in critical incidents must be disclosed under the California Public Records Act unless doing so would compromise a criminal investigation or reveal the identity of an undercover officer or jeopardize an officer's safety. Chalfant rejected the county's arguments that state laws protecting the confidentiality of police officer personnel files prohibit the release of an officer's name after a shooting.

"It hardly needs mentioning that there is an important public interest in the disclosure of the identities of officers involved in a shooting incident," Chalfant wrote.

County officials said they believed that conflicts between earlier court rulings raised doubts about whether the deputies' names should be disclosed.

In an unrelated case, Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe last year issued a preliminary injunction barring the city of Pasadena from releasing the names of two officers who shot and killed a man armed with a handgun. A court ruling on whether to make the injunction permanent is pending. The Times' attorneys have argued to lift the injunction. The newspaper reported the officers' names in February.

In the county's case, Sheriff Lee Baca wanted the court to clarify the law and provide guidance in how to handle The Times' request, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. He said the department would not appeal the ruling.

Rick Brouwer, a principal deputy county counsel who represented the Sheriff's Department in the case, said the deputies' names, ranks, assignments and years of employment could be made public as early as next week.

Representatives of the deputy sheriff's union could not be reached for comment.

The Times sought the identities of deputies involved in the fatal shootings of Avery Cody Jr., who was killed July 5 in Compton; Woodrow Player Jr., who was killed July 10 in unincorporated Athens; and Darrick Collins, who was killed Sept. 14, also in Athens. Sheriff's officials said Player and Collins were unarmed when shot.

In Cody's shooting, a deputy told investigators he fired his weapon during a foot chase after Cody, 16, turned and pointed a handgun at the deputy. Cody's parents have sued the department, alleging that Cody was unarmed and that race -- he was black -- was a motivating factor.

The three incidents were part of a string of officer-involved shootings last year that led Baca to convene a panel of department veterans to determine whether deputies needed additional training.

Last month, Baca ordered deputies to be more cautious and seek backup when pursuing suspects they believe are armed.

The Times argued in its lawsuit that disclosure of the deputies' names was "critical to counter public suspicion that secrecy is being used to mask misconduct."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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