We previously discussed how Dallas Police Chief David Brown quietly changed a rule that would require officers involved in a shooting to wait 72 hours before making a statement. I was highly critical of the change, which treats officers differently from other witnesses to shootings and seeks to avoid contradictions in accounts — difference that might reveal culpability or collusion. Now, Pennsylvania is about to go one better. A new law would prevent the release of the names of officers involved in shootings by 30 days. The bill by Rep. Marina White (R) is designed as a “basic protection from threats” Supporter Rep. Dominic Costa (D) declared, “We are the protectors of our protectors.”
There are good arguments on both sides of this issue.
The prior Philadelphia Chief of Police Charles Ramsey opposed such measures as unnecessary and creating a double standard. After all, the names of other citizens are revealed immediately or shortly after such shootings. Ramsey said “I don’t think you can shoot someone and expect to remain anonymous…and I do think that we have a responsibility as a police agency that work[s] for the people to provide that information, unless there are some extenuating circumstances.”
However, Pennsylvania lawmakers overwhelmingly moved to overrule such objections by a vote in the House of 151-32 and 39-9 in the Senate.
The withholding of names can inhibit public interest groups and lawyers from investigating shootings and the background (or prior incidents) involving officers. As the police know with regard to other witnesses, the first few days are critical for witnesses and investigation. Having the picture of an officer can assist those who are trying to establish independently what the facts may be in a given circumstance. The law is also a heavy limitation on the free press in seeking to establish the facts of shootings.
From the perspective of the police unions, however, there are clear dangers to officers. As shown by recent riots and protests, officers can become the focus of media and lead to threats against them and their families. That public backlash can occur before all of the facts are known, including exonerating circumstances or videotapes.
What do you think?