LAFD Chief Brian Cummings' Media Blackout Is Illegal and Self-Serving, Says LA.'s Top Free-Speech Attorney
[Update: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who hand-picked Cummings and has been lovingly tugging at the chief's puppet strings ever since, totally humiliated his political plaything this afternoon by demanding -- via passive-aggressive "open letter" -- that the LAFD go back to its old method of full disclosure. More, after the jump. Originally posted at 12 p.m.]
If he keeps this up, Chief Cummings will be the new Sheriff Baca in no time.
Brian L. Cummings, chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department, not only put the city in jeopardy by releasing false response times earlier this year.
Nope. He has also managed to violate the California Public Records Act by now halting the release of response times and addresses to L.A. news outlets.
Kelli Sager, a star L.A. attorney who often deals with the First Amendment and the media, says Cummings' argument for the public-info blackout has absolutely "no legal basis" and, as far as she can tell, violates state law.
Cummings claims he was advised by L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich to stop giving out the details of LAFD responses because that might violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule. His statement reads:
"The City Attorney has preliminarily opined that the Department should immediately cease the practice of releasing [Private Health information] to any source not specifically authorized under the Privacy Rule's treatment, billing, and operations exemption."
Although Sager had not been notified of the LAFD blackout at the time we spoke with her, she says it appears that the two city agencies are "taking a law that was meant for something entirely different and trying to make it" fit their interests.
According to Sager, the Public Records Act stipulates that cops, firefighters, paramedics, etc. must release the names and addresses involved in emergency calls.
"There is a general provision about privacy that says they can withhold information that would unreasonably interfere with someone's privacy rights," she says. But "the mere fact that [someone is] making the call doesn't reveal private information."
Releasing a response time or address "doesn't reveal anything about the nature of what happened at the address," argues Sager.
After speaking with LAFD media officers, City News reported that the department would no longer be releasing "basic information about fires, medical calls, traffic accidents or other emergencies it responds to."
It's all very confusing, because the department keeps changing its story. The LAFD's public-relations staff tell the Weekly this morning that they're only withholding response times and addresses on incidents where injury was involved, while waiting on further word from the L.A. City Attorney.
But from Sunday through Wednesday morning -- when the "media blackout" story blew up -- not a single one of the LAFD's press emails nor Tweets contained a time stamp/address.
"Were we overprotective initially? Yes," says spokesman Matt Spence. "We will still provide timely and accurate information for the media. It's evolving."
As of this morning, the LAFD says it will only be withholding information on emergencies involving injury. But even then, Cummings and Trutanich are "completely wrong," says Sager. "This has nothing to do with anyone's privacy."
We've contacted Cummings for comment. As for the L.A. City Attorney -- his spokespeople are claiming attorney-client privilege, as usual. Even though both attorney and client are public agencies, paid for by the people of Los Angeles.
UP NEXT: Villaraigosa gives Chief Cummings a good spanking.