Is There a Middle Way on Cop Anonymity?

Cops lives do matter. So does transparency. Can we protect both?


Let me confess to a failing: When John McNesby speaks, I almost always decide to take the opposite position. It’s a knee-jerk instinct, and it’s probably not one of my better characteristics. My reasoning? If you can find a dirty cop in Philadelphia, McNesby — president of Philly’s police union — is probably nearby, defending that cop and blaming the media. Yes, it’s his job, but his shtick sure seems old and counterproductive in an era that is (rightly) demanding more accountability and transparency from police.

Most of the time, I think he’s bad for Philadelphia.

So when McNesby came out Wednesday in favor of a bill that would require police departments to withhold the names of cops involved in shooting incidents — the Philly Police policy is to name names within 72 hours — I was inclined to dismiss him outright, for three big reasons:

Police work for us. It’s a simple concept, but one that I think gets forgotten in practice most of the time. When an officer kills a civilian, that officer does so in the name of you, me, and every other citizen of this city. We deserve some transparency on the part of those folks.

Transparency can help the public form its own conclusions about individual shootings, as well as the broader workings of the department. Officers are cleared or held accountable, usually, on the basis of their acts in a single incident. The public (and the media) can take the name, run it through Google or some other search engine, and discover whether that officer does — or does not — have a history of similar incidents. That’s information that better helps us judge department’s efforts at discipline, training, and more.

There’s no evidence that officers have been endangered because their names were public. Yes, cops get killed in the line of duty. Has any cop been actually been targeted because they were named in an investigation? I’ve found no evidence of it so far. The bill defends against a problem that doesn’t seem to exist. At all.

I’d be happy to leave it there, except for this: Cops really do fear for their lives on the job. They really are killed. And sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — they are targeted for the uniforms they wear. Given the risks they really do endure, maybe officers should get a little deference in how we handle identifying them.

But not as much deference as McNesby wants. The bill he supports would let officers be identified only if they’re charged with wrongdoing in the course of a shooting. Not good enough. Public servants should be accountable for behavior that falls below criminal levels of responsibility.

On the other hand, 72 hours might be too-in-the-heat-of-the-moment. Even cops inclined toward more transparency think that timeline is terribly short.

So: My modest suggestion. In the case of an officer-related shooting, the department would have one week to identify the officer — a duration that could be doubled (at most) by the police commissioner if any evidence of an actual threat emerged. (The commissioner would have to file an affidavit to that effect.) If criminal charges are filed any sooner than that, of course, the officer would be identified immediately.

There you go. It’s not everything McNesby wants. It’s not everything I want. But it might be enough to let cops feel safer while still resulting in transparency much sooner than we’ve typically seen it recently. Is a middle ground possible on this topic?

I hope so. We value our police. We value transparency as part of democracy. We shouldn’t have to choose between those values.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.