By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that police departments in the state must as a general rule disclose the names of officers involved in shootings, despite claims by a police union that doing so would endanger their safety.
The court, ruling 6-1 in a case brought by the union representing officers in the Los Angeles suburb of Long Beach, said that Californians' right to assess the actions of law enforcement outweighed the individual officer's right to privacy.
"In a case such as this one, which concerns officer-involved shootings, the public's interest in the conduct of its peace officers is particularly great because such shootings often lead to severe injury or death," Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for the court's majority.
The case involved a December 2010 shooting by two Long Beach policemen who opened fire on an intoxicated man standing in his front yard after he pointed a garden hose spray nozzle at them. The man, 35-year-old Douglas Zerby, was struck multiple times and killed.
When a Los Angeles Times reporter sought the names of the officers involved, as well as those of all Long Beach officers connected to such shootings over the previous six years, the Long Beach Police Officers Association went to court. It sought to bar release of the names on the grounds that doing so could lead to threats against the officers.
The city joined in, arguing that it had a policy of reviewing such requests on a case-by-case basis.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the city could not withhold the officers' names, a decision that was upheld on appeal and then appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which sided with the Los Angeles Times.
Attorney Kelli Sager, who represented the newspaper, said the decision represented a win for freedom of information on an issue in a state where many cities and counties had made a practice of withholding the names of police officers involved in shootings.
"The California Supreme Court today laid to rest all the misconceptions police unions have argued about whether this information is public," Sager said. "We're very gratified the Supreme Court has issued this resounding opinion in favor of public access to information."
A lawyer for the union said officers were concerned the ruling could put their safety at risk. "Unfortunately it will probably take an officer or family member being hurt or worse before something gets done," attorney James Trott said.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)