Guest Editorial…Public has a right to know in police-involved shootings…vote “no” on house bill 1538

Summary of Bill: HB 1538, which has passed the House and is on second consideration in the Senate, would prohibit the release of the identity of a law enforcement officer involved in a “use of force” that results in serious injury or death. Under the proposal, as amended, unless criminal charges are filed, identity information may only be released if the officer consents, 30 days have passed, or after a completed official investigation, and even then, it can still be withheld. In practical terms, this proposal could shield from public view the identity of the officers involved in almost all use of force incidents that result in serious injury or death.

  • Yesterday, the Senate Law & Justice Committee amended HB1538 to add a 30-day blackout period and provide that after that 30 days, identity information may be disclosed, but only in the discretion of the police where they determine that there is no reasonable expectation of harm, or upon the consent of the officer involved. In fact, the law makes it a crime to release this information prematurely.
  • The PNA opposes House Bill 1538, PN 4029. As amended, the bill gives complete discretion to law enforcement on whether to release an officer’s name, unless the officer is charged with a crime.  Instead of “may,” the presumption must be that the name “shall” be released, unless there is a well-founded reason for withholding it.  
  • Moreover, an automatic 30-day delay will interfere with police departments’ ability to respond to tense situations rapidly unfolding in their communities. Some circumstances may call for prompt information about the officer involved in a shooting. For instance, in December 2015, Northern York Regional Police released dashcam video of an officer-involved shooting to help locate the suspect. The video and accompanying comments by the chief provided the officer’s identity, as well as the suspect’s. “I want the public to know and understand that this is a dangerous man,” Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel told the York Dispatch.
  • Police officers serve critical roles in our communities. They also carry and use weapons that can dramatically change, or even end, a person’s life, in an instant. When a person is injured by police action, it is crucial for community members to understand the circumstances surrounding the incident. The identity of an officer, as well as the accused, is a critical piece of this understanding. Police already wear name tags, are well-known in their communities, and are being recorded by citizens every day, all across the country.
  • Police departments across the country are moving toward – not away from – more transparency in police-involved and use-of-force incidents. Law enforcement agencies and citizen advocates alike back release of this information as a means to calm their communities, affirm their commitment to transparency, and assure community members that the criminal justice system is working, or will work, fairly and appropriately.
  • The names of police officers whose actions cause injury to citizens must be presumptively public. HB1538 would also inappropriately tie the hands of police departments all across Pennsylvania by prohibiting them from releasing officer identities, whether the situation demands it or not. We believe that the bill is bad public policy, contrary to the public’s right to know and understand what is happening in their communities, and detrimental to police/community relations and trust.

We urge Senators to vote “No” on HB 1538, as contrary to the public’s right to know and inconsistent with the best interests of both the public and law enforcement.


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