Pa. House could reverse Ramsey policy on naming officers involved in shootings

 Philadelphia police at a crime scene.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia police at a crime scene. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A proposal gaining traction in the Pennsylvania Legislature would shield the names of officers who fire their weapons. It’s seen as a direct swipe at Philadelphia’s outgoing Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

Now, with Ramsey’s imminent departure, the bill has an even better chance of becoming law, since Ramsey vowed to take the bill down, and his successor, at least so far, is waffling on the issue.

“Right now, that’s part of discussions we’ll have,” Richard Ross, the city’s soon-to-be police commissioner, said recently when asked if he’d call on Gov. Tom Wolf to veto the legislation. “That’s another matter for the transition team,” he said. “I’m not ready to weigh in on that just as of yet.”

Taking a suggestion from the U.S. Department of Justice, Ramsey reversed longstanding policy by adopting a new rule, that officers’ names would be released within three days of a shooting — so long as there were no credible threats against that officer or the officer’s family.

But John McNesby, who heads the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, thinks that safeguard didn’t go far enough. McNesby enlisted the help of freshman state Rep. Martina White, who in September introduced a bill to prevent the names of law enforcement officers who use deadly force from ever being publicly released. This week, the bill moved out of the Judiciary Committee. On Thursday, it was set for a full House vote.

Now the question becomes: If the bill passes, will Gov. Tom Wolf veto it?

“It is premature to comment on the legislation at this stage in the process,” Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. “But we will review the bill as it moves through the legislature.”

McNesby, however, is ready to go to war over this bill.

“We’re gonna continue to move on that,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you discharge your weapon, it’s not a good thing, nobody looks to go to work every day and do it.”

He then noted the U.S. Department of Justice doesn’t always release the names of FBI agents who fire their weapons, arguing that recommending a city department to do so exhibits a double standard.

“If everybody is going to abide by a rule, it should be everybody. You can’t pick or choose,” he said.

Other critics of the bill, including the ACLU, say police are held to a higher standard of transparency and that this bill suggests that police have something to hide, which could inflame police-community relations.

Releasing the name of the officer who shot and killed Brandon Tate-Brown became a rallying cry of protests across the city in the aftermath of the episode. Authorities initially withheld the name before eventually publicly naming the officer. 

White, a Philadelphia Republican, said she objects to the characterization that this proposal would undo Ramsey’s policy. Instead, she said, it simply adds a layer — requiring an investigation to be completed before a name is released. If charges are filed, the name will be released; if not, the officer remains anonymous.

“People rush to judgment, they make assumptions about the officers. It actually, in my personal opinion, can divide our public from seeing our officers in a good light from the good actions they take when they’re on duty,” White said.

Though in most cases, once someone, police officer or civilian, is criminally charged, the name of that defendant is a matter of public record. In other words, the only thing this bill really does is withhold the names of officers who are exonerated after a shooting. 

“They are not getting immunity. They are subject to the same laws and rules they enforce. This law is permitting a full investigation to be completed first,” she said. “It’s the only thing, really, that is different than the 72-hour rule.”

At a Judiciary Committee meeting, retired officer Rich Costello testified about how his family felt under threat after he was involved in a shooting. But his incident dates back to the 1970s.

White was asked for a more recent example.

“Officer Wilson. Is that not a good enough example?” said White, referring to the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. His name was publicly released before an investigation was complete. A grand jury later decided not to bring criminal charges against him. 

“This piece of legislation will help police do their jobs,” White said. “So they’re not hesitating on the job when they’re trying to protect people who care about their neighborhoods.”

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