Bill Would Withhold Police Officers' Names After Shooting Or Use Of Force

Mar 22, 2017

Families of people hurt or killed by police would not learn the identity of the officer involved for 30 days or until the completion of an investigation under a new bill making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature.

House Bill 27, sponsored by Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia), passed the House 157-30 on Monday. It sets the requirement that officials in local police departments must withhold the names or identifying information of an officer or face a second-degree misdemeanor charge.

Current U.S. Department of Justice policy suggests municipal departments wait 48-72 hours before releasing officer information when the discharge of a police firearm results in someone's death or a serious injury. Elizabeth Randol, legislative director with ALCU of Pennsylvania, said most Pennsylvania departments voluntarily abide by this policy.

The bill would prohibit access to involved officers’ names, although families and victims could petition in court to have them released. County District Attorneys and the Pennsylvania Attorney General could also override the requirement at any time. 

Rep. Dom Costa (R-Allegheny), former chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the delay is meant to give “people with knowledge of the law,” like the DA and AG, an opportunity to step back and evaluate a situation without media or public opinion.

“Once the emotions wear off and the true facts come out, it’s clear,” Costa said. “We don’t want people to work off of emotions.”

Costa said people threatened his family after he was investigated for shooting a suspect who came at him with a knife many years ago, but provided no additional evidence that harassment of that kind is common in Pennsylvania.

State law enforcement agencies don't track how often officers discharge a weapon that results in death or serious injury, a practice in line with national precedent.

"We don't really know how often police officers use deadly force," said David Klinger, criminology professor at the University of Missouri and former police officer. 

Records kept through both the FBI's Unified Crime Report and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics suggest 400-500 police are recorded as being killed by police every year. Klinger and fellow academics have said that is a gross underestimation and does not include the number of people shot and not killed, which he said could be two or three times higher based on studies in individual cities.

Since 2005, The Washington Post has kept a crowdsourced database of fatal shootings nationally, and has identified the officers in about a quarter of the cases. They recorded about 1,000 people killed in 2015.

"It's embarrassing that members of the Fourth Estate has a better count on this than the feds," Klinger said in November.

Beth Pittinger, executive director with Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said the law is flawed, because it takes the ability to be transparent and trustworthy from local police departments.

“Given the nature of police-community relations, this provision will not encourage a more positive relationship between the police and the community,” Pittinger said. “It will actually have a negative effect.”

A similar version was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf in November. White re-introduced the bill Feb. 6.

Pittinger said the process through which HB27 was passed was indicative of mindset behind the idea: no public hearings were schedule and little evidence was provided to show harassment was happening to officers involved in these types of incidents in Pennsylvania.

Law enforcement in the Pittsburgh region have struggled to build trust with minorities throughout several high-profile cases. Jonny Gammage, a 31-year-old black man from Syracuse, NY, died in 1995 after he was pinned down and suffocated by Baldwin and Whitehall officers. Charges were filed against three of the officers and eventually dropped.

In 2012, then-21-year-old Leon Ford was shot five times during a traffic stop. He has filed a civil suit against two officers involved, David Derbish and Andrew Miller.  

Pittsburgh Police have vowed under previous and current administrations to improve transparency, including joining a White House initiative focused making local law enforcement data more accessible.

Costa said he wanted to prevent situations like that of former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, who was found not guilty of shooting and killing 18-year-old black man Michael Brown. Despite his vindication, Costa said, Wilson was forced to move from the town and withdraw from public life.

Randol said withholding officer information can be detrimental not only to individuals dealing with law enforcement, but to the agencies themselves.

“It at least suggests to the public that law enforcement officers and police officers have something to hide,” she said. “It already prejudices the officer in ways that I think are worrisome to law enforcement themselves.”

The bill now goes to the state Senate for consideration.