Martina White introduces House Bill 1538

State Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, appears with members of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police at a June 9 news conference about her proposal to shield the names of police officers who use force in the line of duty unless they are charged with a crime.

THE ISSUE

In the past 10 years, lawsuits alleging excessive force against local police across Lancaster County resulted in at least $2.4 million in payments, according to an LNP analysis. Lancaster city alone has settled four suits for $100,000 or more each, with one officer being named as a defendant in three of the complaints; none of the settled cases involved the shooting of a person. Earlier this year, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said his department will release the names of Philadelphia officers involved in on-duty shootings within 72 hours unless there is a threat against an officer or an officer’s family. A Philadelphia lawmaker has introduced a bill, related to all uses of force by police officers, that would outlaw Ramsey's policy. Its 54 co-sponsors include three Republicans from Lancaster County — state Reps. Mindy Fee, of Manheim; Keith Greiner, of Leola; and Dave Zimmerman of East Earl.

As Americans continue to discuss police accountability, and the safety of officers and the public, we tend to agree on key goals.

Everyone wants police officers to be held accountable. They are paid public employees with the authority to use force, sometimes deadly force, as they protect our safety.

We also all want those who protect us to be kept safe from unnecessary risks.

The best ways to balance and achieve those goals is where we tend to disagree.

House Bill 1538 — authored by GOP state Rep. Martina White, of Philadelphia — provides no balance at all and would, we believe, do nothing but damage the public’s trust in police.

White’s bill would prohibit the release of a police officer’s name after a use of force, gun-related or otherwise, with two exceptions. If the officer is charged with a crime in the incident and there is no reasonable threat to the officer or to a member of the officer’s immediate family, then, and only then, would HB 1538 permit release of the officer’s name.

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law already allows withholding a document if its release would “(e)ndanger the life or physical safety of an individual.”

That’s a sweeping exception, and it addresses the only legitimate concern in White’s bill: an officer’s safety.

Shielding an officer’s identity because he has not been charged with a crime sets the bar pretty low. It only fuels the suspicion among some that police officers tend to protect their own when investigating the use of force by fellow officers.

The proposed law exacerbates the problem this community faced when Anthony Gomez Jr. was shot dead in a Lancaster apartment in May by a city police officer.

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman’s refusal to release the name of that officer served only to create unnecessary suspicion.

This law would codify suspicion and create the potential for the sort of tension that we saw boil over in Baltimore last spring.

If the safety of an officer or an officer’s family would be jeopardized by releasing the officer’s name, anonymity is appropriate. And Stedman said that was why he withheld the name of the officer involved in the May shooting death in Lancaster. The DA needs to explain to the public how the threat against that officer differs in degree and kind from other cases — given that an argument for shielding an officer’s identity could be made in any situation. To maintain the public’s trust, such a case should be persuasive and it should be made publicly.

LNP's July 1 Editorial: Release names of police officers involved in May 19 fatal shooting

Consider the case of the police officer named in three of the four complaints Lancaster city settled for six figures each since 2008; the same officer was named in three additional complaints settled for lesser amounts. Under HB 1538, a police department could argue for redacting an officer’s name before releasing any record of a settlement — if he wasn’t charged with a crime or he or his family might be put at risk as a result of his name being released.

That’s not accountability. And it’s bad public policy. Surely, it’s legitimate for the public to question why an officer named in more than one lawsuit settled for six-figure sums is still on the force. And, under the counter-transparency provisions of HB 1538, it’s a question the public would lack the information to ask.

Pennsylvania law balances police accountability and the safety of officers with a safety exception to Right-to-Know. Reducing accountability will only harm public trust and, ultimately, the relationship police need to do their jobs effectively.