By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Police across Pennsylvania have the authority to use deadly force if necessary, and one state lawmaker believes officers who have to resort to such extreme action should not have their names released to the public unless criminal charges are filed against them.
State Rep. Martina White, a first-term Republican from Philadelphia, has filed legislation that would shield officers’ identities when they discharge their firearm or use force in the course of their official duty, unless an investigation found wrongdoing. She said her intent is to mitigate the chance of vigilantism putting officers’ lives in jeopardy.
“I just feel like we should allow time for the facts to come out, for the investigation to be completed,” she said. “And then, at that point, if they have done something wrong and are charged with some kind of criminal action, at that point then their names can be released.”
White’s proposal comes as the nation finds itself still in the midst of an intense debate over police officers’ use of force, especially in cases involving unarmed black men. The bill raises a philosophical question of how much public accountability police should have when they use deadly force, justified or not.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has already lodged its opposition to the proposal, arguing a high standard for openness. Under White’s bill, the implication is that people who work for the government have something to hide, said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“We give our police officers incredible power, including the power to use deadly force if necessary,” Hoover said. “And when we give them that power, they need to act transparently.”
In Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots broke out after Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, tensions were only inflamed as the police department waited several days to release Wilson’s name, Hoover said.
White, though, cited the threats Wilson received as an example of what can happen when an officer’s name is released. The Justice Department eventually cleared Wilson of wrongdoing.
Under White’s bill, the officer’s name could not be released if he or she was not charged with a crime following an investigation into the discharge of a firearm or use of force. There also would be no disclosure if the release of the officer’s identity could “reasonably be expected to cause harm to the person or property of the law enforcement officer or an immediate family member of the law enforcement officer,” according to the bill.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which supported White during her campaign, also supports the bill. However, the lawmakers’ stance puts her at odds with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has instituted a policy that identities of officers involved in police-related shootings be released within 72 hours, unless a threat is made against them or family.
Ramsey, who led a White House task force on policing formed after the protests and riots in Ferguson, did not respond to a message seeking his stance on the bill, but he did tell the Northeast Times he opposes it.
State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, also opposes White’s bill. He has proposed legislation that would require the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to review incidents in which a civilian dies as the result of an officer’s conduct.
“For far too long, we’ve turned a blind eye to the glaring problems in our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to the disparate experiences of racial and ethnic minorities,” Sims said in a statement. “Instead of legislation that makes law enforcement more accountable and open to the communities it serves, (White’s) bill would take a giant step back and would erode the trust between our communities and our police force even further.”
White remains steadfast behind her idea, saying the notion it makes officers “anonymous” is a discredit to police. They have a dangerous job, and if they hesitate to act out of fear of what could happen if their names are made public, it imperils them and the communities they serve, she said.
“It’s more of a bill that allows the truth to come out,” she said. “It’s facts instead of rumors.”