Ernie Schreiber editorial on House Bill 1538

  • Nov 06, 2015

Ernie Schreiber

Ernie medres
Next week, state lawmakers will consider passage of a bill that would conceal from the public the names of any police officers who shoot their guns in the course of their law enforcement duties.

The bill would allow release of the names only if, after investigation, the officers are charged with criminal wrongdoing in the shooting – and if there is no expectation that publication of the names would cause harm to the officers or their immediate families.
On the surface, this proposal might seem reasonable, especially to those many citizens who appreciate police officers, recognize the dangers they face, and want to support them in carrying out their duties. No reasonable person wants to see harm come to those who work to protect the public from criminals.

But this legislation, written with the best of purposes, is misguided.

It hides police actions just at the time when it is most important for police to be open and transparent. When an officer has shot at, or hit and possibly killed, another person, his department should not be defensive and go into hiding. It should show forthrightly who fired the shots, the circumstances of the shooting, and why it was justified. If the police have acted correctly, and in most cases they do, there is nothing to hide.
What this bill proposes – secrecy – breeds suspicion and erodes trust. After a shooting, when police most need public support, this bill would throw a cloak of secrecy over the event, inevitably undermining the public’s confidence in their police officers.

In other shootings – when a husband kills his wife, or one drug dealer shoots another, or a robber shoots a store clerk – police promptly identify the suspect they are seeking or person they have arrested. There is no provision that the shooter’s identity be kept secret until an investigation is complete. There is no special provision to shield the shooter’s immediate family from harm.

This legislation would set police apart from other citizens. In doing so, it would upend the traditional relationship between citizens and police.

Police are employees who serve the public. Through elected officials, citizens hire their police officers. Through their taxes, citizens pay their officers’ salaries.

In turn, police are accountable to the public, their employers. Police agencies have provided daily reports on their activities – the who, where, when, what of crimes in their jurisdiction. They have provided periodic summary reports on their successes and challenges in crime fighting. They have publicly honored their outstanding officers. And, when called for, they have publicly charged and disciplined officers who criminally abuse the power of their positions.

This proposed law would contradict that tradition of public accountability. In a situation that should require full, open disclosure of a most serious incident, police would instead be bound by law to a policy of secrecy.

The unwitting consequence: Police would be accountable only to themselves, a horrible precedent for a democracy.

The primary rationale for this proposal, of course, is fear of harassment or retaliation against officers involved in shootings, or their families.

That is a fear that police officers have lived with for the past 200 years. They have accepted it as part of the job and taken the appropriate steps to shield themselves in those rare cases when a criminal takes it into his head to seek retribution.

During the past summer, a wave of irrational, random violence directed against police swept through several states, thankfully not Pennsylvania. But that frenzy, like the riots of the 1960s, has passed. Lawmakers should not enact a permanent restriction on the openness of our democratic institutions in response to a temporary problem.

Finally, even the strongest supporters of law enforcement must acknowledge that on rare occasion, a police department makes a bad hire: It puts on the payroll an officer who is too aggressive, who uses his weapon unnecessarily.

If the identity of all officers involved in shootings becomes secret, the ability of the public to know of such officers is lost.

The desire of political leaders to demonstrate support for law enforcement is commendable. Ours is a society of laws, and police are the glue that make those laws stick.

But, in the long run, this proposal, does not support police. It sets police apart from other citizens, fosters suspicion of their actions, and ultimately undermines trust in those we have entrusted to enforce the law.

Ernie Schreiber, retired executive editor of the Lancaster New Era and Intelligencer Journal, serves on the boards of the Pennsylvania Society of News Editors and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.

You must be logged in to post comments.

 
Contact Us  |  3899 North Front Street, Harrisburg PA 17110  |  Phone: (717) 703-3000  |  Fax: (717) 703-3001