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Gov. Wolf, veto Martina White’s divisive, secretive policing bill (guest column)

State Rep. Jordan Harris writes that H.B. 1538 would further erode trust between police and people of color.

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Keith Scott.

You may have heard of these men. You may not have. All four of them were African-American men killed by police officers in 2016. Go back over the past few years and you may find more recognizable names.

Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner.

These are the names of three more African-American men – technically two African-American men and one African-American child – who were killed by the police. Twenty-six percent of the people killed by police officers in 2015 were African-American, and as of September of this year, that percentage is nearly identical.

When you ask why there is a divide between communities of color and our police force, look no further than the statistics above or the countless blurry cell phone videos of people of color being detained, often aggressively, often illegally, by the police to understand why there is a trust issue. This division of trust has strained the relationship between police and our community, and that trust is in danger of being further threatened.

House Bill 1538, sponsored by Republican Rep. Martina White of Philadelphia, aims to further erode the trust between citizens, specifically people of color, and our police force. H.B. 1538 would prohibit the release of the name of a police officer who discharges their firearm or uses force that results in death or serious injury until the completion of an “official investigation” that may take up to 30 days after the fact.

Hiding the name of a police officer involved in a potentially deadly encounter is not the way to improve trust between law enforcement and communities that have historically been marginalized by those in positions of power. The only way to ensure transparency and let our communities know all the details about a police-involved incident is to release as much information as possible. House Bill 1538 would destroy that transparency that is vital to police-community relationships.

This bill would also rob local authorities of deciding what is right for their own jurisdiction, as well as place complete trust in an “official investigation” that is not even defined as to what it may contain within the bill’s language.

Worst of all, it would place a wall between a potentially grieving community and the people who are sworn to protect them. Policing does not work unless there is trust, and this bill would do irreparable harm to the trust between the men and women who have taken an oath to protect us and communities of color.

Our society is moving to be more and more transparent, yet this bill would cast a cloak of secrecy around police officers at a time when the public most demands information. This is not how you rebuild community-police relationships. This is not how an open and informative society should work.

All communities made up of people of color play a vibrant role in our democracy, and this bill would further alienate them by unnecessarily breeding distrust and resentment between those communities and police officers. It is bad policy that inherently makes it seem as though the police have something to hide. In any officer-involved shooting, the police department should want nothing more than to clear the name of their officer when warranted and let the public know that their actions were justified.

This cannot happen when you shield vital information for up to a month about the details of the shooting. This bill would make our current situation worse, not better. It would also override local policies such as the policy put in place by the Philadelphia Police Department. In a move to show transparency and trust, the PPD policy is to identify anyone involved in an officer-involved shooting within 72 hours.

We fully understand that police officers across the state have a difficult and dangerous job. This opinion against H.B. 1538 should not be taken as an opinion against police officers. The PPD is not even in favor of this bill, let alone fighting for it. Police officers understand that this bill will only harm their standing in the eyes of the community.

H.B. 1538 is simply bad policy that would only heighten the current tensions between police departments and communities made up of people of color. With heightened tensions, nobody – not police and not community members – benefits.

The Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus urges Governor Tom Wolf to veto H.B. 1538.

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Phila., is chairman-elect of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

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