Fearing transparency would place officers’ lives at risk, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a bill Tuesday that would make it illegal to release the names of officers under investigation for shooting or abusing citizens in the line of duty.
The only exception would be if the officer ends up charged with a crime.
But considering how rare that happens, even when the names of officers are released, we should expect a decrease in police accountability in the Keystone State.
After all, this is the state that acquitted a cop this month for second-degree murder, even though her own body cam footage showed her tasering and shooting an unarmed man in the back as he lay facedown in the snow.
Not to mention the state where a federal jury acquitted six Philadelphia police officers earlier this year of ripping off drug dealers during a six-year period in what the agency’s police commissioner Charles Ramsey described as being “one of the worst cases of corruption I’ve ever heard.”
In fact, the bill is a direct response to Ramsey’s proposal earlier this year to begin releasing the names of these cops within 72 hours, something the agency had not been doing in the name of “officer safety.”
Despite the call for further transparency in the country when it comes to police abuse incidents, there was very little opposition to the bill in the republican-controlled House, which passed it 162-38.
Now it will go before the republican-controlled Senate who will likely pass it into law.
“This is not about protecting our police officers from bad publicity, it’s about protecting their lives and their family,” said the sponsor, Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia. “In today’s atmosphere and instant communication methods, we need to abundantly be cautious so as not to jeopardize our law enforcement.”
Opponents said the bill did not directly address a number of issues, including what would happen when someone violates the ban, and warned its secrecy could foster distrust between police and the people they serve.
“To mandate a veil of secrecy when an officer discharges a firearm or uses force? No, that would be a step in the wrong direction that would further damage the relationship between the general public and law enforcement,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon. He also argued that withholding names would expose all officers on a force to public suspicion and that the bill would remove discretion currently enjoyed on a department-by-department basis.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, said she failed in efforts to amend the bill to add a 60-day period after which the officers could be named.
She said the “risk of harm” wasn’t defined and wondered if it could apply to reputational or economic risks.
Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny, said that within hours of his participation in a shootout as a Pittsburgh police officer, his life and family were threatened.
“We’re making way too much of this,” he said. “Does anyone in here have a bullet in the base of their brain? I do, from the line of duty.”
Costa was shot during a botched stand-off situation with a suspected drug dealer back in 2002 when he was a commander with the Pittsburgh Police Department. The shooting led to the conviction of a man named Cecil Brookins for attempted murder.
But Brookins insisted he never shot his gun. And Costa as well as another cop testified they never saw him shoot the gun.
And Brookins’ attorney told the jury that the gun police accused his client of using to shoot the cops was reported stolen more than a month after the shooting by a man unrelated to the shooting.
In fact, police were unable to find Brookins fingerprints on the gun.
What happened that day was that Costa was in the room with Brookins, negotiating with him to surrender, when other cops were creeping outside a window.
One of those cops, a SWAT team member, was certain that Brookins had spotted him, which is why he ordered other SWAT team members to rush into the room.
That is when the shooting started, so it appears to have been a case of friendly fire.
Costa was not wearing a bulletproof vest that day, which would likely have stopped the bullet because it entered through his back, struck his spine and bounced upwards where it remained lodged in his skull.
After the shooting, Costa immediately went on disability but the police chief issued him a ten-day suspension for a number of blunders he committed during the botched raid. However, Costa then retired, never having to serve the suspension.
So for Costa to pull the Cop Card in getting this bill to sail through the House is disingenuous.
In fact, we can’t even recall a single time when a cop was ambushed after his name was released to the media.
The truth is, this is a bill that appears to have been drafted by the Fraternal Order of Police, which were instrumental in the election of Martina White earlier this year, the rookie state representative who sponsored the bill.
“Criminals threaten the well-being of our officers every day,” she said when introducing the bill. “Our own public officials shouldn’t be the ones handing over officers’ information, which could lead criminals to them and their families, where they could take vengeful actions.”