In cities across the country, the fatal shooting of unarmed civilians by the police — particularly unarmed black men — has helped spawn a movement for greater accountability and transparency in law enforcement. Civil rights and civil liberties groups, human rights organizations, and grassroots activist groups such as Black Lives Matter are concerned about the mistreatment of citizens by law enforcement and eager to find solutions.
In Pennsylvania, some police organizations and lawmakers resistant to the calls for reform are fighting back through the legislative process. Two bills introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly — House Bill 1538 and its companion legislation Senate Bill 1061 — would prohibit law enforcement from releasing the names of officers who discharge their firearm or use force while on duty until after an investigation, presumably a criminal investigation.
Under the proposed legislation, the officer’s name and identifying information would be released to the public if he or she is criminally charged. However, in the event the officer is not charged, the officer’s identity would not be released if doing so would create a risk of harm to the officer or an immediate family member.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Martina White (R-170), sponsor of the bill, announced her proposal last September at the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 headquarters. The Philly FOP donated $5,000 to White’s campaign in a special election last year, and hosted her victory party.
SB 1061 and HB 1538 challenge a policy ushered in by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Under his policy — announced last July and recommended in a report by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was led by Ramsey — the police must release the name of an officer involved in a shooting within 72 hours of the incident. The task force report on community and police relations in Philadelphia said the police department’s guidelines on the use of force were confusing and inconsistent, and it found “significant strife between the community and the department.”
The police union immediately condemned Ramsey’s disclosure policy, claiming it was implemented “without negotiating with or securing the approval of the FOP,” and saying it “is contrary to decades of past practice between the parties whereby the privacy rights of officers were valued and protected.”
Advocacy groups oppose the proposed police secrecy legislation in the interest of transparency and fairness, and because Black Lives Matter.
As Keystone Progress argues in its online petition, these bills attempt to cover up crimes committed by police officers and keep the public in the dark, allowing both individual officers and entire police forces to escape public accountability.
Further, the ACLU of Pennsylvania believes the bills assume that the police have something to hide when such incidents occur, withholding critical information to the public and only risking heightened tensions between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve.
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says this “one-size-fits-all” remedy reflects decisions best left to local officials on a case-by-case basis, rather than lawmakers at the state capitol.
“House Bill 1538 is a solution in search of a problem,” Hoover said in a statement to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. “According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could not name a single incident in Pennsylvania in which an officer or his family was harmed or threatened during an investigation of a shooting or incident involving force,” he added. “While the possibility of such a hypothetical occurring in the future is not unreasonable, local officials currently have the ability to keep officers anonymous if there is a possibility that releasing their names after an incident could cause harm to them or their families.”
Police officers are not members of a private organization, nor are they a secret gang beyond the scope of the law. Rather, they are public servants in a job with a great degree of power, and which comes with risks they assume and understand when they join the force. Everyone is entitled to due process, but police officers are not a special category of citizen entitled to anonymity.
Meanwhile, similar measures are making their way through other state legislatures. In Virginia, a police secrecy bill was tabled over concerns about balancing officer privacy and the public’s right to know. In California, such laws have created a safety net for bad cops and a wall of silence around corrupt police for years. And in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed a bill that would have withheld the name of an officer for 60 days or after the end of the criminal investigation, whichever came sooner. Ducey, who pledged to run a “transparent and accountable” government, cited the concerns of police chiefs, who already have the discretion to make decisions in the best interests of their departments. The governor was also concerned it would escalate tensions and “result in unforeseen problems.”
Meanwhile, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has called for greater accountability and transparency in policing. For example, the anti-police violence group Campaign Zero advocates for civilian oversight structures, required independent investigations and prosecutions when the police seriously injure or kill someone, and community feedback to guide and inform police department policies and practices. The organization also cites the unfair protections in police union contracts that make it difficult to punish unfit officers, such as allowing officers to wait 48 hours after an incident before being interrogated, preventing an investigation if the incident is more than 100 days old, and preventing the public release of an officer’s name or picture.
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis in Harper’s Weekly in 1913. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Police secrecy legislation, on the other hand, strives to keep the public in the dark.