In the 6-1 decision, the high court rejected blanket bans that cite unspecified safety threats to officers as a reason for withholding the names.
The court said exceptions could be made to keep the names of undercover officers private and in cases where credible threats exist.
“When it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer’s name, the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest,” Justice Joyce Kennard wrote.
The case before the court concerned the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Douglas Zerby, 35, by two Long Beach officers on Dec. 12, 2010.
The officers were responding to a call in which a neighbor said an intoxicated man was brandishing a gun.
Zerby, who found to have sustained 12 gunshot wounds, turned out to have been holding the nozzle of a garden hose.
The Los Angeles Times, later joined by other media and the American Civil Liberties Union, sought to learn the officers’ names.
city and the Long Beach Police Officers Association opposed the disclosure, arguing the officers could be threatened or harmed.
The city and union contended the officers were entitled to an exemption under California’s Public Records Act of 1968, which generally
requires disclosure of government records but allows exceptions when the public interest would not be served.
“In today’s Internet age, we believe that releasing the name of an officer is tantamount to releasing the officer’s home address and other personal information,” said union president Stephen James.
But the court majority said an exception should be granted in officer-involved shooting cases only when there is evidence that a particular officer or officer’s family would be endangered.
“Vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer
names,” Kennard wrote.
Kennard said releasing names helps hold peace officers accountable and trumps general safety concerns.
“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,” Kennard wrote.