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Officer privacy is a balancing act

Oversight of the Police Department includes weighing the public's right to information.

November 27, 2011|By Maria Hsin, maria.hsin@latimes.com

As Burbank weighs options for greater oversight of its troubled police department, one thing appears certain: The city will have to walk a fine line when it comes to officer privacy and the public’s right to know.

The Burbank City Council recently agreed to bring on Michael Gennaco, of the County of Los Angeles Office of Independent Review, to examine certain types of police cases and results of internal investigations.

The Police Commission will discuss attorney Robert Corbin’s involvement, including whether he should ensure the department’s 2011 Strategic Plan is being followed.

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Gennaco has said findings and recommendations will be shared with the public.

Public information versus officer privacy is a tightrope walk that officials say they know too well given the ability of news organizations to file lawsuits for information, and officers to sue if workplace protections are violated.

“We recognize the need for the public’s right to know and recognize individual officers’ right to privacy,” Burbank City Manager Mike Flad said.

In Palo Alto, where Gennaco has brought his brand of oversight and public transparency to a police department of roughly 100 sworn officers, Police Chief Dennis Burns, a 30-year veteran, said it was initially awkward for police to have an independent auditor on board, but the force has since come to terms with it.

“Even if [officers] don’t know firsthand, they tend to figure it out,” Burns said. “Even before [it runs] in newspapers, word gets out. I’m not sure that there’s another way to do it.”

And while opening the Palo Alto Police Department to greater public scrutiny hasn’t been wholly embraced by employees, “it’s the arena in which we play these days,” Burns said.

His command staff works with officers to let them know if something they were involved in will appear in the next audit and, by extension, the local newspaper.

“Not to say that officers like it, but I think they’ve grown accustomed to it,” Burns said. “I think they understand that in a democracy, and in this day and age, with questions about rights and police and how money is being spent, that this transparency provides better trust and understanding about what’s going on with the police department.”

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