Gov. Shapiro refuses to intervene on Pa. police officer data disclosure

A coalition of newsrooms requested Pennsylvania’s database of police officers, but officials denied the info, citing safety concerns for undercover officers.

Pennsylvania State Police office

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania State Police denied a records request from a coalition of newsrooms for a database of certified police officers. (Commonwealth Media Services)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania will not release a state-maintained database of certified police officers, even after a national coalition of newsrooms asked Gov. Josh Shapiro to intervene.

The newsrooms, including Spotlight PA, sent a letter on July 14 asking for the Democratic governor to assist with accessing public information about police officers that Pennsylvania State Police maintain.

“This type of information is the bedrock of what Americans expect to access from their public bodies,” the letter to Shapiro reads.

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“We are collecting and analyzing the data in an effort to hold the systems that govern policing in each state accountable to the citizens they serve, by allowing journalists and researchers to analyze the employment history of officers that, when compared with other data and sources, may enable reporting on issues of police misconduct and oversight.”

Shapiro’s office, in a response this week, declined to step in.

“For law enforcement officers under his jurisdiction, Governor Shapiro continues to make this data available to the public in a responsible way that does not compromise trooper safety — which is our utmost priority,” said Will Simons, Shapiro’s communications director.

“However, the Pennsylvania State Police is not responsible for the administration of the other 1,300 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania and has no way of knowing which officers from those agencies are putting their lives on the line in dangerous undercover or covert operations,” Simons said.

The letter comes after Pennsylvania State Police denied the newsrooms’ request under the Right-to-Know Law to release the data earlier this year.

The database is maintained by the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission, an internal State Police body that certifies local police officers.

The information contained in the data, such as name, rank, and employment history, is public.

But in 2014, Commonwealth Court ruled State Police did not have to release it because the agency did not know which officers were doing undercover work and could not redact their names.

Simons said that members of the public, as well as the media, can access information about officers from individual departments.

But the newsrooms argue that without access to the database, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to create a record of all certified officers statewide, as there are more than a thousand police departments in Pennsylvania, if not more.

“Such a result is at odds with the [Right-to-Know Law],” the letter reads. “The law’s presumption in favor of transparency is explicit.”

The coalition of newsrooms, which includes Spotlight PA as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY, sought the database as part of an ongoing national project to identify “wandering officers” who have been fired for misconduct from one department and hired again elsewhere.

The outlets were convened in 2019 by Big Local News, a program of Stanford University’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative that helps journalists collect, process, and analyze public data.

Since 2019, 34 other states have provided newsrooms access to police rosters without compromising public safety. These include Connecticut and Montana, where officials alerted local police departments to the request and allowed the agencies to identify undercover officers for removal.

Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that denied the newsrooms’ requests, instead exempting police officers from a law that otherwise lets the public to know the names and job titles of the government workers who collect taxpayer-funded salaries.

Withholding the names and employment histories of police officers makes accountability difficult in a state where it is nearly impossible to know how many police departments exist and where loopholes hinder oversight mechanisms.

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Pennsylvania’s largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the state government itself, already voluntarily publish employee rosters that include police officers.

This kind of disclosure is important, said Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City Police chief who now consults for the Center for Policing Equity, because residents “should have the right to investigate (if) bad cops are going from agency to agency.”

Pennsylvania has a history of such officers finding new jobs in law enforcement after leaving a prior department due to misconduct.

In 2022, Tioga Borough, a tiny Pennsylvania town, hired Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a Cleveland park. Controversy following the hire unraveled the town and ground government to a halt.

“That’s where there should be more public disclosure on those things, as opposed to hiding it away,” Burbank said.

Sam Stecklow of the Invisible Institute contributed reporting.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

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