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June 3, 2014
Editorial: The public's right to know who the pulled the trigger

police_checkpoint.JPG(June 3 - By the Editorial Board)

If police unions had their way, officers would have the right to be anonymous whenever they chose. Some might go so far as to dump uniform name tags that carry their surnames.

They'd justify it by saying there are bad guys out there who would target them. And with the Internet, it takes only a few minutes and a name to find out private personal information.

That's a compelling, though specious, argument, and we're glad the California Supreme Court saw through the rationale put forth by the Long Beach Police Officers Association in a lawsuit trying to block the release of the names of two officers who shot an unarmed man to death in 2010.

The 6-1 ruling last week - Justice Ming Chin dissented - made it clear that the union had not made the case that the officers were in danger if identified. The union had only suggested that, generally, police officers might be harassed after a fatal shooting. Indeed, the two officers were subsequently outed when a review of the shooting exonerated them, and were not harmed.

That's an important decision in and of itself, but the justices made it all the more significant by ruling that police departments can't issue blanket policies to hide the names of officers involved in shootings.

Hooray for them. The ruling is a buffer against a worrisome trend toward secrecy around officer-involved shootings, even as their incidence appears to be on the rise.

"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 majority. "Here, therefore, in weighing the competing interests, the balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure and against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved."

Of course, this doesn't - and shouldn't - preclude police agencies from shielding officer's identity in the face of specific and credible threats. Even defenders of the public's right to know understand that defenders of public safety need to have some measure of the same.

But in this case, there was no threat, just legitimate community anger over the killing of 35-year-old Douglas Zerby, who was drunk and holding a garden hose spray nozzle when the officers shot him five times. They were right to wonder how and why it happened. They were right to know who killed him. No one who has the authority to kill others should be exempt from public accountability. Even if it is uncomfortable.

The shooting of a mentally unstable Army veteran in Lodi in January is another case in which police went too far to hide details. It took months for police officials there to release basic information about the events leading up to the fatal shooting, including the 911 call that started off the event and the mean-looking knife the victim brandished at police. These details went a long way to quell public agitation. Instead of protecting the officers, withholding information only fomented distrust by a public who thought the secrecy meant there was something to hide.

It is the nature of law enforcement agencies and unions that represent officers to seek to control what the public is allowed to know about what they do. In many cases, they do so for valid reasons, as they investigate people who prey on the public.

Sometimes, however, they swing too far toward secrecy; this is especially true when citizens are killed. This means that the public must regularly push back. Thanks to the California justices, they won't have to push back in every case.