Under a new provision of their contract, Long Beach police officers would get a heads-up about who is asking to see public records cataloging their misconduct or times they used potentially deadly force.
The contract, which is set to be considered by the City Council Sept. 17, would require the city to tell officers when they’re the subject of records being released under a new police transparency law.
As part of that notification, officers would be told the name of the person or organization requesting the records, the date of the request and a description of what’s being sought.
Officers would also be given copies of the records at least five days before they’re released to the person who requested them.
Attorneys who have litigated police records issues say this process could create space for officers to try to dictate redactions or lobby the city before documents are made public.
“It’s troubling,” said Glen A. Smith, a legal fellow with the First Amendment Coalition. “It kind of gives the officer a right of first refusal.”
Officers could sue to try to block or delay the records’ release, much like teachers did in San Diego County when school districts notified them they were going to reveal files about sexual abuse to Voice of San Diego reporters.
Experts said the five-day warning period for officers seems to guarantee the public will have to wait longer to get the records, although Long Beach says it will not delay their release.
“I don’t see how it can not delay things,” Smith said.
The Long Beach Police Officers Association said it pushed for these provisions because they didn’t want officers to be blindsided by information that could end up on the front page of a newspaper.
“It only seems right that the officer has an understanding of what’s in their own case file,” union President James Foster said.
Foster said it’s becoming more common across the state for officers to get notice whenever information about them is going to be released under Senate Bill 1421, the landmark transparency law that went into effect in January.
The law mandates disclosure of police reports and discipline records whenever an officer was dishonest or sexually abused a member of the public. It also makes police turn over records about serious uses of force such as police shootings.
Many times, officers aren’t even aware of all the information in those files, according to Foster. He said giving them a few days notice at least allows them to prepare for any possible backlash or retaliation.
Although public records requests are themselves public records, Smith worried that automatically revealing requestors’ names might make them reluctant to ask for the information they want.
“It’s hard enough to ask for police records, and now the police officer is going to know who is asking for records about him or her,” he said.
If requestors want to avoid having their names disclosed, they can file anonymously, according to Alex Basquez, Long Beach’s director of human resources.
The contract also specifies that the city can withhold information from officers about requests “where the disclosure of such information is prohibited or in the City’s discretion is exempted by law,” although it’s unclear what that will mean in practice.
The police union’s members and the city’s negotiating team have already agreed to the contract. If the City Council approves it, officers would also get a raise and be required to contribute more toward their pensions.
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