Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a controversial bill that would have delayed public release of the name of an officer who fires a weapon in the line of duty.
Had Wolf signed the legislation, Pennsylvania would have become the only state in the country to have a law allowing a police officer who shoots to go temporarily unidentified. A similar law was vetoed in Arizona last year. In Oregon and Virginia, nearly identical bills have been introduced but put on hold.
In Pennsylvania, advocates for more police transparency considered the veto a major victory, yet law enforcement groups contend Wolf’s decision could endanger the lives of police officers.
In his veto memo, Wolf said that when police shoot at civilians, the public has a right to know as much as possible. Otherwise, he wrote, “a harmful mistrust will grow between police officers and the communities they protect.”
But to some police officers across the state, Wolf’s veto is troubling, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republicans.
“When a bill passes with such strong bipartisan support, an overwhelming majority, it’s always a little surprising and shocking when a governor vetoes a bill like this,” Miskin said.
The bill called for keeping secret the names of cops who shoot at civilians for 30 days after an incident or when an investigation into the shooting is complete.
“This just gives them a little piece of mind as they protect the public that a fair and objective investigation can be conducted, and it doesn’t put them or their families at risk,” Miskin said.
If an officer is named soon after a shooting, the argument goes, many might assume the officer is in the wrong — and that could prompt retribution. Critics, however, said that kind of retaliation is rarely reported. The larger risk, they say, is community perception: If it appears as if cops are hiding something, community members will respond.
“If people believe that we’re actually going backwards and not going to make good on the promise of transparency, I think that will potentially inflame communities even more in these circumstances,” said Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission.
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey held the same view. Under his leadership, the department began releasing the name of an officer involved in a shooting within 72 hours — as long as there were no credible threats against the officer. It was a step the U.S. Department of Justice recommended to help make police in Philly more accountable in the wake of a noticeable spike in officer-involved shootings in 2012.
The bill Wolf stopped on Monday was, in essence, attempting to pump the brakes on Ramsey’s policy.
“This bill is the state Legislature making a decision for all police departments and all municipalities around the state from the confines of the state Capitol,” said Andy Hoover, a lobbyist with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“We don’t want Pennsylvania leading the way in the backlash against what is essentially a new civil rights movement, calling for more police accountability,” he said.
The legislation did win the support of some Democrats, but one who spoke out strongly against it was Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia. Take, for instance, a mother grieving after her son was fatally shot by police.
“And now we’re going to bar chiefs of police across this commonwealth from providing that mother with a name,” Harris said on the House floor. “Providing that mother with a thought that the process will not be tainted, that the process will not be rigged against her and her child.”
Sunlight, Harris said, is the best disinfectant.
“This closes the window. This pulls down the shade. This doesn’t let the sunlight in. This keeps communities in darkness, and when communities are in darkness, you see unrest,” he said.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 strongly urged Wolf to sign the bill. In a letter expressing his disappointment, president of the union John McNesby said Wolf showed disregard for cops by “spinelessly caving to the howling mob of anti-police hate groups.”
McNesby went on to say that, “Sadly, once again, a politician has endangered police in order to protect his own thin political hide.”
The legislature appeared to have the votes to override the veto, but with both chambers adjourned and the current session ending on Nov. 30, officials with both parties said no further action would be taken.
Still, Republican Rep. Martina White of Northeast Philly has already vowed to reintroduce the legislation next session. So, Wolf’s veto is a win for now for police reform advocates, but the larger battle is on hold until the Legislature reconvenes in January for another two-year session, when Republicans will hold an even stronger majority following the November election.
“Shootings are increasingly political,” White said. “That places the lives of our officers and the lives of their family members in danger. While we need transparency whenever police are involved in a shooting, we owe our officers basic protection from threats.”