On May 16, 2012 07:26 am
When a Columbus police officer’s fatal shooting of a suspect inflamed passions in a South Side neighborhood last year, city authorities refused to identify the officer to protect him from “ credible threats.”
In an unrelated case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday that law-enforcement agencies may withhold the identity of police officers who face substantiated threats of injury or death in retaliation for on-the-job actions.
The officers’ constitutional right to privacy — and personal protection — supersedes Ohio’s public-records laws, the justices ruled in the appeal of a case filed by The Cincinnati Enquirer.
A police-union president welcomed the ruling, while the newspaper’s lawyer said it could inhibit public and news-media review of officers’ use of deadly force. The Enquirer had sought the names and identifying information of two police officers who were shot in a 2010 confrontation with members of the Iron Horsemen motorcycle gang at a Cincinnati bar.
Cincinnati police refused to release the officers’ names, saying they were potential targets for retaliation by the gang because its “national enforcer” was killed in the shootout with officers.
The Enquirer received copies of police reports and files with the names of the officers removed, but the paper argued that the redaction of the officers’ identities violated public-records laws.
The Supreme Court justices relied on a 1998 federal-court ruling involving the Columbus Division of Police to affirm a ruling by Ohio’s 1st District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in The Enquirer’s case.
In a case brought by three undercover Columbus police officers who testified in the trial of Short North Posse gang members, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that officers had a fundamental privacy right to personal safety. The officers objected to the release of their information to lawyers for the gang members.
The Enquirer argued that Cincinnati police did not provide sufficient evidence that the injured police officers, who recovered, faced credible threats to their safety. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati lawyer who represents The Enquirer, said: “I’m concerned going forward that courts may give an inordinate amount of deference to the decisions of police chiefs in withholding officer names based not on any specific threat, but a generalized concern for officer safety.”
It will be difficult to review officers’ histories of use of force and conduct records when they remain anonymous, Greiner said.
Sgt. Jim Gilbert, president of Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, praised the court’s decision. “The line has to be drawn if transparency is going to be a potential danger to the officer and his or her family,” Gilbert said.
Columbus police refuse to identify the officer who fatally shot Obbie Shepard on Aug. 26 on the South Side. Police said the 21-year-old was shot after jumping off a stolen bicycle and firing shots at pursuing officers.
His shooting led to protests and, police officials said, threats against the officer. A grand jury cleared the unidentified officer of wrongdoing. The Police Division’s internal review of the case has not been finished.