The decision now shields disciplinary records previously available either through records requests or citizen review panels, such as the OCC.
Guylin Cummins, an attorney who represented a Southern California newspaper in the public records challenge that led to last week's ruling, said Sacramento legislators never intended to completely curtail access to disciplinary files.
"Nowhere in the legislative history does it say, 'We're going to trump the [California Public Records Act],’” Cummins said.
But an attorney for the Deputy Sheriffs' Association of San Diego County, Everett Bobbitt, told the Guardian that public defenders and litigants were compiling the records in databases to use arbitrarily against cops in court.
"You'd go to one county and they'd restrict [the records], and you'd go to another county and they wouldn't," he said. "I thought that wasn't fair. There was a lot of personal material in those files."
Steve Johnson, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the group has always believed that the California Penal Code extended such privacy rights to officers, but that the Police Commission had regularly declined to honor them. When we contacted him, he had yet to read the Copley decision.
"We have always been of the opinion that the city should comply with the penal code.... Our attorneys have made motions in the past, but they were denied," Johnson said.
The case that led to last week's decision began in 2003 when a San Diego deputy sheriff was fired for failing to arrest a suspect in a 2002 domestic violence dispute involving a clearly injured female victim. The deputy then didn't report the incident and manipulated his patrol log to depict the call as less serious than what was actually probable cause for an arrest. He appealed the termination but requested that the hearing be kept confidential.
As a result, the San Diego Union-Tribune was barred from attending the hearing, and a public records request for details of the disciplinary proceedings was denied. The paper's parent company, Copley Press, sued to retrieve the deputy's name, among other things, but a trial court in San Diego denied relief. Further records requests by the paper following the decision prompted the San Diego Civil Service Commission to reveal some additional details, but only in redacted form. The deputy's name was still withheld.
Following a closed-door commission meeting, the deputy's firing was changed to a resignation and the charge that he falsified his patrol log was removed from the record. The Union-Tribune went to an appeals court judge asking for the deputy's name and any additional evidence of the agreement, including documents and audiotapes, from the case. The lower-court decision was overturned there. But along with the Supreme Court, where the case eventually arrived, the appeals court never technically ruled on public access to disciplinary hearings. It only addressed disciplinary records.
"[The decision] is not saying that civil service commission hearings are closed," said Susan Seager, a First Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles who submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Union-Tribune. "I think that's the debate here." But because so much material presented at the hearings comes from personnel files, Bobbitt responded, they'll likely have to be closed in order to comply with the decision.
Journalists at the Union-Tribune, for their part, obviously dislike the ruling.
"Certainly officers have an understandable motive for being fiercely protective of their privacy," the paper wrote in a Sept. 2 editorial. "Yet decades of scandals across the nation show that police cover-ups of internal misconduct are disturbingly common. The idea that police often operate under a 'code of silence' isn't just a figment of a pulp novelist's imagination."
It's not easy being a cop in this city. San Francisco for the most part ideologically opposes rigid, law-and-order conservatism.