Last month, Pennsylvania legislators wrapped up a little gift for the state’s law enforcement agencies: a bill that would have allowed agencies to withhold the names of officers involved in deployments of deadly force for at least 30 days. This was just the mandatory withholding window. The bill never stipulated a release date past that point, meaning “never” was also an acceptable time frame.
The normal concerns for “officer safety” were given as the reason for the new opacity. Rather than see disclosure as an essential part of maintaining healthy relationships with the communities they served, law enforcement agencies saw disclosure as just another way to hurt already very well-protected officers.
The DOJ itself — often a defender of entrenched police culture — recommended a 72-hour window for release of this information. State legislators, pushed by local police unions, felt constituents would be better served by being kept in the dark. Given the back-and-forth nature of public sentiment, it was unclear how Governor Tom Wolf would react to the passed proposal.
Fortunately, Governor Wolf has seen the bill for what it is: something that further distances police officers from the people they serve. In a letter [PDF] announcing his veto of the bill, Wolf points out the law would have done far more harm than good. (via PINAC)
Government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government. I cannot agree to sign this bill, because it will enshrine into law a policy to withhold important information from the public.
The legislation as drafted would prevent the disclosure of a police officer’s name in a situation where an officer takes the life of an unarmed person. These situations in particular — when law enforcement uses deadly force — demand utmost transparency, otherwise a harmful mistrust will grow between police officers and the communities they protect and serve. Transparency and accountability are required of all public employees, but this bill ignores the reality that a police officer is a public employee.
Wolf also points out that law enforcement agencies aren’t being served by this bill either. The bill would make it illegal to release officers’ names before thirty days have elapsed, even if individual agencies feel an earlier release would defuse tensions and/or protect uninvolved officers from being subjected to unfocused criticism or abuse.
The proponents of the bill have little concern for community relationships nor the well being of uninvolved officers. All they want to do is add more opacity to law enforcement and erect a stronger shield over some of the government’s most problematic employees. Fortunately, the state’s governor saw the damage the bill would create and refused to become part of the problem.