The California Supreme Court appears poised to make the correct decision, favoring the public's right to know the names of police officers involved in shootings over the officers' desire for privacy.
The case under consideration is from Long Beach, where police officers fatally shot a man holding a garden hose nozzle, which they mistook for a gun.
Police, of course, are due some privacy in their jobs. Their addresses must not be made public, nor information about their families, for example.
But when they put on the badge, they become employees of the public. And when they employ the ultimate means against a member of the public -- shooting someone, especially to death -- their privacy desires are not to be overvalued against the employer public's right to know who they are.
The public should know, for example, if an officer has been involved in a series of shooting incidents. It should know if a shooting is an isolated incident for that officer.
After the Long Beach shooting in 2010 that took the life of Douglas Zerby, a Los Angeles Times reporter filed a Public Records Act request with the city of Long Beach for the names of the officer who had shot the unarmed man. The Long Beach Police Officers Association sued to enjoin the request, arguing that identifying officers involved in the shooting would put their safety at risk. The association lost at trial and on appeal before appealing to the state Supreme Court.
The safety of the officers is also the rationale the Los Angeles Police Department has used in refusing to release the names of eight officers who opened fire on two women in a pickup truck during the manhunt for Christopher Dorner. Police Chief Charlie Beck determined that those officers violated department policy in the incident, which cost the city a $4.2 million settlement.
As the ACLU noted in its amicus brief, a ruling for the police union would "dramatically hinder the public's ability to know how its police departments operate and hold them accountable for mismanagement in perhaps the greatest authority a people can confer upon their government: the right to use deadly force against citizens."
In last week's oral arguments, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the California Public Records Act favors disclosure and does not allow for blanket exemptions. Justice Goodwin Liu observed that police wear identifying name plates in public, and Justice Marvin Baxter questioned whether police agencies would withhold names of officers who had performed heroically.
It sounds as though the justices are on the right track. Their decision is due within 90 days.