In this season of discontent with public employee unions, California's police officer associations are waging costly, fruitless and self-defeating campaigns to protect their members from legitimate public accountability. Police unions have recently inserted themselves in battles in Pasadena, Long Beach and the county of Los Angeles, all to prevent the release of names of officers involved in shootings.
That's awful public policy. A police officer on duty performs a consummately public responsibility. Officers are identifiable to the public — they wear their names on their uniforms — because it's crucial that people in the community know their identities. Police are armed and allowed to use force, but they must do so in the service of the public, and under its scrutiny.
And yet, in a spate of cases, police unions are fighting that premise. Last December, for instance, Long Beach officers shot a man carrying a garden hose nozzle. When reporters asked for the names of the officers involved, the Long Beach union intervened, saying the release of that information would violate the officers' privacy. Similarly, in two shootings involving Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies — one late at night on Sept. 14, 2009, the other on a summer afternoon in Compton — their union is making the same argument.
In all these recent cases, police unions have argued that the names of officers involved in shootings should be withheld from the public, even when their police chiefs have said they believe the public should be informed. The unions have gone to court in an attempt to prevent disclosure. That means police unions are inserting themselves into the management of these departments, asserting that their members' desire for anonymity trumps the obligations of police chiefs to discuss the workings of their departments with the public.
The unions argue, naturally, that it's a matter of officer safety — that it's dangerous for the names of officers involved in shootings to become public.
"There are always those people who are extremely critical of police actions," the union representing Long Beach police officers argues in its case. "The best way to keep officers safe from these unknown people who may try to bring harm is not to let them know which officer was involved."
That's a sad statement of resignation: The best way to protect police officers is to disguise their identities? Wouldn't a better way be to conduct police work openly and in collaboration with the public, to build public support for the police rather than encourage public suspicion? And surely this argument extends in other directions: Is the best way to protect social workers from criticism to let them be anonymous? How about schoolteachers? Or doctors accused of malpractice? Should priests accused of molesting children remain anonymous?
The larger point here is one of the appropriate place of organized labor in fashioning public policy. Unions have an obligation to their members to argue for wages and benefits and for workplace safety; they can and should vigorously represent those interests. But they shouldn't carry the day in the formation of public policy about holding those same employees accountable for their actions. As they are proving, police unions will invariably press for secrecy — anyone who can get away with not being accountable would happily do so. But police departments cannot be effective if they lack public confidence and trust. We have seen that clearly in Los Angeles (where the names of officers involved in shootings were routinely released for decades). These are policy matters of significant consequence; they are not appropriately left to bargaining units.
Finally, there is the laughable futility of these efforts. Within two hours of sitting down to write this column, I was able — using documents filed in open court — to ascertain the names of the Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies involved in the two shootings. They are Kevin Brown and Sergio Reyes. Their union is fighting to prevent the sheriff from releasing their names, even though the deputies are named in the lawsuits brought by the families of Darrick Collins and Avery Cody Jr., whom those deputies shot.
The union knows that, but it fights anyway, disingenuously arguing that disclosure might reveal the deputies' identities to those who might harm them. As the union well knows, those who might most wish to harm them already have their names. The union's real effort is aimed at keeping the general public in the dark.
That officers are named in lawsuits or involved in shootings in no way suggests that they are guilty of anything. They are entitled to every presumption of innocence. But when a police officer shoots a suspect, the public is entitled to know that the officer acted properly and within the law, and that investigators will treat it as they would any other case. That is a public right, not a union privilege.