Members of the Fraternal Order of Police are rallying behind legislation to shield the identities of officers who use force.
They cite a need to protect the officers from retribution and a public that’s quick to rush to judgment.
Advocates repeatedly turned to anecdotes of ambush violence against police–a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot while pumping gas in Texas, two New York City officers gunned down and a Pennsylvania state trooper killed by survivalist Eric Frein about this time last year.
“We’re in a different world than it was back even just a few years ago,” Les Neri, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania State Lodge, said during the rally in the Capitol last week. “Because of that, we have to make sure that the men and women who are out there putting their lives on the line every day in the protection of others are protected.”
The bipartisan proposal would allow the release of an officer’s name only when criminal charges are filed in connection to the use of force or the discharge of a firearm. The bill is built on the premise—a flawed one, according to experts and national statistics—that policing has become more dangerous amid the public backlash after high-profile instances of use of force, especially against unarmed black men.
Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, has tracked statistics from the FBI that show policing has actually gotten safer and less lethal since violence against officers peaked in the 1970s—despite a slight uptick in clear cases of ambush killings.
At the end of 1980, the 10-year average of officers feloniously killed each year was almost 115. By the end of 2014, that figure had dropped to 50.5. If the current pace continues, about 40 officers would be killed this year—the second-lowest number since 1962, Stoughton said. Assaults on police have also dropped.
“There is certainly a stronger public sentiment and harsh public criticism of policing in the last year or so that we have not seen, but that has not statistically equated to more violence—and more particularly, more lethal violence—against officers,” Stoughton said.
A former police officer, Stoughton says large agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department disclose identifying information promptly after shootings, and no department has reported that officers were subjected to violence because their names were publicized.
Police union leaders and lawmakers offered a more concerning picture, calling out the Philadelphia policy of disclosing names of officers involved in shootings within three days unless a threat is made against them or their family.
“This is legislation that shows that we’re going to be proactive rather than reactive. We’re not going to wait for an incident to happen,” said John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. “To have a sitting administration and a (police) commissioner want to release an officer’s name within 72 hours—just merely to satisfy the public—does not make sense.”
Freshman state Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, introduced the bill. She took office this year after winning a special election for a vacant seat and received several endorsements from organized labor, including that of the FOP Lodge 5. The union also cut her campaign a $5,000 check.
White said her legislation would help facts emerge through an investigation.
As those inquiries occur, prosecutors and police administrators must be “extremely vigilant” in holding officers accountable and filing charges when warranted, said state Sen. John Sabatina, D-Philadelphia.
“But if those actions withstand this scrutiny they should not be turned over for a re-judgment to an emotional mob,” Sabatina said.
White believes the bill could improve relationships between the community and the police.
“Rushing to judgment and making assumptions about officers’ actions only serves to feed into the mob mentality that is plaguing our nation and creating targets out of our officers,” she said, adding that her bill would “help fix a broken system that for too long has left our officers and their families in a vulnerable position.”
Stoughton, though, sees more value in creating good relationships before an officer-involved shooting occurs. Distrust already lies at the center of the increased tension between the public and police, and a blanket rule prohibiting disclosure of names would do “tremendous damage to transparency and accountability,” he said.
Typically, courts aren’t receptive to the idea that a public official’s individual right to privacy regarding an incident in their official capacity outweighs the public’s interest, Stoughton said.
“We really have to remember officers are public officials and public servants. Putting their actions in a black box and not letting us know—not releasing to the public information about who did what—is not a way to foster public trust in that system.”
Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t taken a stance on White’s bill, a spokesman said. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has already lodged its opposition.
State Sen. John Rafferty, a Montgomery County running for attorney general, said police must worry about threats both domestic and abroad.
“You’ve got to remember, we’ve all seen all the YouTube videos of these radicals overseas that want to take on and destroy our country, who keep saying, ‘Target the uniforms of the military and the police,’” Rafferty said. “We cannot afford to release their names until the prosecutors and the administration have the thorough time needed for their investigations to come to that situation.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on PAIndependent.com. It is republished on Saucon Source with permission.