White

Why Democrats, Republicans are pushing the bill to keep officers’ names out of shooting reports

Like all bills, if this one successfully winds through the assembly it will land on the governor’s desk. But it might stop there.

As state Republicans and Democrats acrimoniously attempt to pass a budget five months past due, a piece of legislation that runs counter to police department policies across the country has rapidly gained bipartisan support.

This week, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would make it illegal for the police department or other public officials to name a police officer involved in a shooting before an investigation concludes. The bill, introduced by freshman Philly Republican Martina White, gained unanimous support from the Republicans and Democrats in that committee.

In a state where even Yuengling is subject to partisan politics, this bill has moved quickly and successfully because it is backed by a key group the Republicans and Democrats both generally try to appease.

“I thought that there would be more opposition,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “I thought that there would be more support for transparency, but the [Fraternal Order of Police] played it well. They played to the police state mentality of one party and the union leanings of the other party. And they get their way.”

The committee approval comes at a time when many departments and advocates around the country are pushing for a quicker release of the names of officers involved in incidents of force, including in Philadelphia. Outgoing Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey instituted a policy in early July that required names of police officers to be released within 72 hours of a police-involved shooting, unless a threat had been made against the officer or the officer’s family.

The California Supreme Court last year ruled departments must identify the names of officers involved in shootings. Before the ruling, most departments in California had policies of not releasing names.

“We think that this is a problematic piece of legislation insofar as it attempts to reverse what the will of the community is in Philadelphia,” said Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission. “People want to know what happens, particularly when officers use force and especially any type of deadly force.”

White announced her bill at the Fraternal Order of Police’s Philadelphia headquarters in September. She said the measure is in part a response to Ramsey’s policy, but also to “an overarching theme that has been seen in the media across the country to our law enforcement.”

“People are rushing to judgment when an officer has to take action to protect the community or protect their own lives,” White said. “It makes sure that a full investigation is completed first before any thought of disclosing a name transpires.”

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall, sees the unanimous support as surprising, but not the momentum for passing the bill, given Pennsylvania’s reputation as a “tough law and order state.” When Tom Ridge ran for governor in 1994, Madonna recalled, he focused his platform on toughening laws.     

“We’ve had a strong legislature and governor over the years supporting law enforcement,” Madonna said. “That’s sort of deep in the culture.”

Like all bills, if this one successfully winds through the assembly it will land on the governor’s desk. But it might stop there. Wolf hasn’t shown as much support for the typical, tough law and order policies as his predecessors, introducing a moratorium on the death penalty earlier this year. Ridge signed more than 200 execution warrants while in office. Ed Rendell signed 85 in his first six years. Tom Corbett signed 48, including five in his final days as governor.  

Wolf’s camp, for now, is declining to speak about House Bill 1538. Spokesperson Jeffrey Sheridan said the governor, per protocol, doesn’t speak about legislation this early in the process. And Ramsey, who retires at the beginning of January, has said he would ask the governor to veto the bill if it passes through the house and senate. 

Arizona appears to be the only other state that has recently attempted to enact legislation to forbid the release of officers’ names pending the end of an investigation. That bill passed through the state house and senate but was vetoed by Republican governor Doug Ducey.

Arizona civil liberties groups, media associations and, most prominently, the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police had lobbied against the bill. Pennsylvania’s ACLU and NewsMedia Association have spoken out against Pennsylvania’s bill, but organized opposition has not been strong so far.       

“Most of us have been concentrating on the budget and other things going on,” Madonna said. “I am surprised that we haven’t heard more opposition, more vocal opposition, which doesn’t mean it won’t be forthcoming now.”   

Hoover said the ACLU of Pennsylvania plans to start discussions with local police advocacy groups. Anderson said he wanted to visit Pittsburgh’s police advisory commission and discuss ways to oppose the bill.

“Frankly we’ve been out of step with the general trends around the country, particularly when it comes to deadly force,” Anderson said. “Do we have to be careful? Of course we agree with that. [But] hiding officers’ names who take these actions is not helpful. It’s not helpful to police and not helpful to the overall attempts to heal this gulf between police and the community.”

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