- Reporters Desk
SACRAMENTO — On May 29, the California Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-1 vote, Justice Ming Chin opposed, that police agencies generally must release the names of officers involved in shootings.
The decision means that police departments must prove a danger to the officer (or officers). In order for the city to withhold a name, it would have to establish that there’s an actual, credible threat. The court stated officers’ names only can be withheld if there is specific evidence that their safety would be imperiled, such as would be the case with undercover officers. However, police departments do not have a blanket right to conceal the names of officers involved in shootings.
“Indeed, it is my view that too often law enforcement treats the vast majority of what it does as a secret and dissuades public involvement, when in face very little need be kept confidential and the engagement of our community should be embraced and welcomed,” he wrote. “… we also need to consider the privacy and safety interests of officers and their families, as well as the privacy interests and safety of our community. It is this balance that state law seeks to consider and achieve. As Police Chief, it is my job to abide by and enforce state law, as interpreted and clarified by our Supreme Court; I look forward to the direction from our City Attorney in regard to the implementation of this decision.”
The case stemmed from the officer-involved shooting of Douglas Zerby, a 35-year-old man who was killed by police officers when they mistook a garden hose for a gun. An autopsy showed that Zerby was shot 12 times. The District Attorney’s office cleared the officers of fault. A federal jury later awarded Zerby’s son and parents $6.5 million for the officer’s negligent battery and violation of Zerby’s 4th Amendment rights.
The Los Angeles Times attempted to obtain the names of the police officers involved in the shooting. The newspaper made a California Public Records request asking for the names of the officers who shot Zerby and those of all Long Beach officers involved in on-duty shooting for the prior five years.
The Long Beach Police Officers Association attempted to prevent the disclosure by moving to block them in court, citing personnel confidentiality and officer safety. Long Beach and other law enforcement agencies argued that disclosure would endanger officers and their families. Trial judge and a state appeals court rejected the union’s arguments, prompting the appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The Los Angeles Times, other media groups and ACLU groups countered the public’s right-to-know with regard to police use of lethal force.
In a statement Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell said he is committed to transparency in his department.
Eventually, prosecutors revealed the name of the officers involved in Zerby’s shooting— officers Jeffrey Shurtleff and Victor Ortiz.