Pennsylvania is looking to regress. Police accountability is always a struggle, but the state legislature wants to take a huge step backwards. A bill sitting on the governor’s desk would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold the names of officers who deploy excessive force, possibly indefinitely.
The decision to release names of officers deploying excessive or deadly force has usually been made at the local level by each individual department. Some were better than others at doing so. Some, like Philadelphia’s police department — moved more proactively, instituting a 72-hour release policy in accordance with DOJ recommendations. This discretion would be removed and replaced with a state law that would only serve to further separate officers from accountability.
That this bill is even on the governor’s desk is largely due to a local police union’s power, as Reggie Shuford of the ACLU explains:
On September 11, 2015, Pennsylvania State Rep. Martina White — who represents a district in northeastern Philadelphia, and who received a political endorsement from the local Fraternal Order of Police — introduced HB 1538. A direct response to [Philadelphia Police Chief Charles] Ramsey’s 72-hour policy, the bill was designed to shield the names of officers involved in shootings. HB 1538 would have made it illegal for any public official to release the name of an officer involved in a shooting unless that officer was charged with a related crime.
This version of the bill didn’t make it far, but a watered-down version has replaced it that’s not much better.
On October 26 this year, Pennsylvania’s State Senate passed a form of the bill that sets a 30-day prohibition on releasing the name of police officers who use force on the job. The state House passed it the next day.
Thirty days is far longer than the DOJ-recommended 72 hours. Worse, the bill robs local PDs of control, subjecting them to state standards, even when delaying the release of officers’ names may do more overall harm to the department and its relationship to its community.
Then there’s the fact that the law doesn’t mandate a release once 30 days have elapsed. All it does is ensure that no information can be released during this time period. If departments want to withhold names indefinitely, nothing in the law prevents them from doing so.
As Shuford points out in his article, police officials should be given the latitude to release names earlier, especially considering the collateral reputational damage done to every officer who works for the same department. While many officials claim that “safety concerns” or “ongoing investigations” prevent the release of officers’ names in use of force incidents, this secrecy does no favors for other officers on the force.
The Hummelstown Police Department was transparent after officer Lisa Mearkle killed David Kassick in February 2015. That transparency protected her fellow officers from unnecessary public pressure…
When the public doesn’t know who the “bad apples” are, it’s pretty easy for them to hate the whole barrel. The proposed law does nothing to foster relationships with the public and forces more proactive agencies to sit on their hands as situations deteriorate.