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Names of Long Beach police officers involved in shootings are public information, judge rules

The judge rules that to withhold information there must to be proof of specific danger or threat to officers.

January 21, 2011|By Victoria Kim and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times

A judge has ruled that the names of Long Beach police officers involved in shootings is public information, denying a request by the officers' union that the city be barred from releasing their identities to The Times.

In an order dated Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patrick T. Madden refused to grant a preliminary injunction in a case filed by the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., which had argued that the officers' names were protected personnel information and that releasing them would jeopardize officers' safety.

The Long Beach union sued the city after a public records request from a Times reporter for the names of officers involved in shootings since 2005. The request covered a Dec. 12 shooting in which police shot and killed a man holding a water nozzle that officers mistook for a gun.

In the last two years, two other police unions in the county have contended in court that officers' names should not be released in shooting cases. One of those cases is still being litigated and in the other, the issue was ruled moot after officers were identified in a Times article.

In his 25-page ruling, Madden wrote that the general rule was for the information to be made public, and that the burden was on the city and the police union to justify keeping the names secret. He wrote that there needed to be proof of specific danger or threat to officers, saying earlier case law states "speculative or generalized alarms over safety concerns will not suffice."

"Neither the LBPOA nor the City has supplied anything beyond the generalized and speculative invocation of fear that someone, somewhere … may ultimately use names that are disclosed as stepping stones to find the officers and hurt them or their families," the judge wrote. There "are other ways for the officers' identities to become known to those who have an axe to grind."

He also wrote that the release of the information sought by The Times "would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and that the names of officers involved in shootings was "not privileged."

James Trott, an attorney for the union, said that whether or not there are specific dangers does not matter because the names are part of the officers' personnel files and exempt from public disclosure. He said he would ask the court for a stay on Monday in order to seek a writ from the appellate courts.

Trott said having to prove the danger to officers' safety is "a standard that's very difficult to meet." "People don't always announce their bad intensions," he said.

City Atty. Robert Shannon said the city would join the union in its writ, saying he disagreed with the court that the city had the burden of proving that there is a danger to officers. He said the generalized danger was enough to justify the names being barred from release.

"We understand there is a public interest in it, but there is also a right of privacy held by the officers," he said.

The Times had sought the records contending it would allow for the independent examination of the conduct and tactics of police officers. In arguments before Madden on Monday, Alonzo Wickers IV, an attorney for The Times, argued that the officers' names were not protected personnel information and that neither the city nor the union had offered proof that officers faced danger if their identities were made public.

He noted outside court that because officer-involved shootings are investigated as a criminal matter as well as an internally, their names would be in records outside the officers' personnel files.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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