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Saturday, May 25 2013 09:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Why officers' names must sometimes be disclosed

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood reveals the results of the autopsy of David Silva and answers media questions at the 3 p.m. Thursday news conference.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Local media, sheriff deputies and invited guests listen to Sheriff Donny Youngblood's news conference at the sheriff's headquarters Thursday afternoon.

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BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

I adamantly disagree with Sheriff Donny Youngblood's decision to withhold names of officers involved in major incidents.

Not only on basic legal grounds but also in light of one particular statement he made during his press conference on Thursday regarding David Silva's death.

Related Info

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

The issue of officer names came up after Youngblood laid out the sequence of events surrounding Silva's May 8 death.

A reporter asked the sheriff to name each deputy in that sequence and Youngblood refused.

"No, we learned our lesson," he said. "We're not releasing deputy names in major incidents."

The seven deputies had already been named shortly after the Silva story broke and Youngblood said they received death threats and had to be placed under guard.

Because of that, he not only wouldn't elaborate on each of those deputies' involvement, he won't name deputies in major events going forward.

Indeed, the deputy who shot to death a stabbing suspect in Oildale on May 16 wasn't named.

Youngblood told me on Friday that he realizes he could be forced to release deputy names if the county counsel tells him the law requires it.

"But as of right now, that's my personal decision because of this case," he said of the Silva incident. "Until we get past this I can't, in good faith, list deputy names."

Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said it makes sense to him to withhold an officer's name if there's reason to believe that officer's life would be in jeopardy. But he's still researching the law.

OK, there could be a rare case where naming an officer could cause harm, such as undercover officers.

"But that has to be clearly articulated by the department," said Jim Ewert, a First Amendment attorney for the California Newspaper Publisher's Association. "It can't just be, 'Oh well, we think it could be dangerous.' That's not enough."

Issuing a blanket ban on naming officers involved in deaths is one step closer to creating the kind of secret police you find in dictatorships, he said.

The founders of the Constitution went to great lengths to keep that from happening.

"Police officers represent us, they're out there protecting us and they have the unique ability to take away someone's life or liberty," Ewert said. "It's up to the public to make sure they're exercising that authority in an appropriate manner."

That's a lot of power. And knowing the names of officers involved in deaths is one the public's major checks on the possible misuse of that power.

But case law has become muddled on this issue, which Ewert said is giving police agencies wiggle room to withhold officers' names.

A 1997 case, New York Times vs. Superior Court in Ventura, clearly spelled out that the names of officers involved in shootings must be released to the public.

Then a 2006 case, Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court came along about whether officers' names in disciplinary matters should be released. The court found names in disciplinary matters should not be released. But a footnote stated even the names of officers involved in shootings "may not necessarily be disclosable," Ewert explained.

"That created some ambiguity, which is being exploited by a lot of departments that don't want scrutiny," he said.

The issue could be settled later this year as the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case brought by the Los Angeles Times which is exactly on point.

The Times sought names of officers involved in shootings in Long Beach. Both the trial and appellate courts found the public IS entitled to that information. The Long Beach Police Officers Association has appealed to the Supremes.

Hopefully that will bring some clarity.

But even without direction from the high court, Ewert said the California Public Records Act should hold sway. The public records act creates a presumption that all government records are disclosable unless they fall under a specific exemption.

It's all about making government open and accountable to the public.

Which brings me to Youngblood's press conference where he said: "We are trying to be as transparent with the public that we serve as we can."

I asked him how that squared with his edict to withhold the names of officers involved in major incidents.

"Can you tell me how withholding a name has something to do with not being transparent?" he asked. "I don't make that same nexus that you might make."

Clearly, not.

Youngblood is, essentially, demanding that we trust him.

Considering he's making that demand through a brick wall of his own construction, it's hard to hear him.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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