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Officers names can be released in UC Davis incident, judge rules

June 26, 2012 |  3:04 pm

UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike pepper-sprays Occupy protesters while blocking their exit from the quad in November 2011.

Siding with the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee, an Alameda County Superior Court judge Tuesday ordered the release of the names of UC Davis police officers that were removed from a critical report on the pepper-spraying of student protesters.

The newspapers sued the UC Regents last month under the California Public Records Act to compel release of the names –- all but two of which had been withheld under a settlement agreement in a separate case.

In that case, Judge Evelio Grillo had disagreed with the police officers’ union that significant swaths of the report pertaining to officer conduct should be withheld from the public. But he had allowed for the redaction of most names after the union asserted that those officers would probably face harassment. 

On Tuesday, Grillo said his earlier injunction did not apply to information sought under the California Public Records Act and ordered the policy report –- written by a task force headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso –- released in its entirety.

“The court today provided valuable transparency that was missing from the earlier litigation,” Thomas Burke, an attorney who represented the newspapers, said after the hearing. “The Reynoso report will now be publicly released without any police censorship.”

The Federated University Police Officers’ Assn., which intervened in the newspapers’ lawsuit to block the release of the names, has until July 27 to file a writ seeking review by an appellate court.

Union attorney Michael Morguess, who participated in Tuesday’s court hearing by telephone, indicated that the organization would do so. He could not be reached for further comment.

UC officials had cited Grillo’s earlier injunction in denying Public Records Act requests by both newspapers for the complete reports. But university attorneys said little during Tuesday’s hearing, allowing Burke and Morguess to spar over the law.

“We’ve been in full support of the entire report being released all along,” UC spokeswoman Brooke Converse said after the hearing. “We’re prepared to abide by the court’s ruling.”

Morguess on Tuesday unsuccessfully reiterated his arguments from the earlier case –- that the officers had a reasonable expectation of privacy and their names were protected because they were contained in a report that is comparable to a police personnel file compiled for disciplinary purposes.

Again, Grillo rejected those concerns. He had based his earlier decision to withhold some names not on those points of law but on a declaration from Lt. John Pike, whose spraying of seated protesters with the industrial-grade pepper spray spread worldwide via the Internet.  In his declaration, Pike said he had received thousands of letters, texts and  emails, many of them harassing, along with unwanted deliveries to his home.

But in his ruling Tuesday, Grillo wrote that the officers who worked during the Nov. 22 campus demonstration wore name tags and were visible to the public. Furthermore, he pointed out that no information had been put forth by the union to suggest that Pike has suffered any harassment over the last three months, or that other lesser-known officers whose identities have leaked out have suffered any.

Grillo noted that his balancing test might tilt in favor of police privacy in cases involving undercover officers or officers involved in shootings, but that the public’s right to transparency was lessened in a case involving “uniformed officers involved in making arrests of non-violent protesters.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which had intervened in the earlier case to push for the report’s full release, participated in the current case by filing a brief in support of the newspapers’ position.

“It’s a great result,” ACLU attorney Linda Lye said after Tuesday’s hearing. “Transparency is paramount in cases involving police officer misconduct.”

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--Lee Romney from Oakland

Photo: UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike pepper-sprays Occupy protesters while blocking their exit from the quad in November 2011. Credit: Wayne Tilcock / Associated Press

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