Is Pa. Bill That Would Block Naming Cops Who Shoot Civilians ‘Fair’ or Regressive?
Thursday was a big day for police unions in Pennsylvania.
If you ever wonder who has more clout in Harrisburg — the unions or activists pushing for law enforcement reforms — just pull up the roll call for House Bill 1538. The bill, introduced by Philadelphia Republican state Rep. Martina White, calls for police officers who are involved in shootings to only be identified 30 days after the incident, or after an investigation into the shooting is finished — so long as there’s not a sense that releasing the information will put the cops or their families in danger. Releasing an officer’s name before that 30-day benchmark would bring a second-degree misdemeanor charge. It passed through the House by a massive margin — 151 yeas to 32 nays.
I was at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5’s headquarters in the Far Northeast last fall, when White first discussed the bill in front of a large crowd of current and retired officers and their families. She stood on an uncluttered stage, backed by the union’s president, John McNesby, and a handful of other officials. Then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey had recently instituted a policy of publicly naming cops who had fired their weapons within 72 hours, a step that many outsiders viewed as a long-overdue boost to the department’s transparency efforts.
McNesby and White talked about the dangers Ramsey’s policy posed to the cops and their families: Imagine, they said, what could happen if a criminal decided to take that information and track the officers down. The thought experiment sent a chill through the room.
Still, it wasn’t clear if White’s legislation would gain momentum. So much of the national dialogue about the relationship between police and civilians — and minority communities in particular — centered on building a foundation of trust by holding back as little information as possible.
But the bill did catch on, passing easily through the state Senate as well. Gov. Tom Wolf is “reviewing the legislation” and hasn’t made any decisions about whether he’ll sign it, said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan. It’s unclear what, exactly, he can do; the bill passed with a veto-proof majority.
That the bill had such an easy time getting through the Senate and the House just underscores how much power police unions wield, and how much ground Black Lives Matter and other groups clamoring for change need to make up, said Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission. “Agencies like mine are constantly telling people, ‘Let’s focus on substantive issues.’ Now it’s hard to make that argument when we see the legislature folding to the will of a couple of union leaders around the state,” he said.
“If we’re going to tell [activists] that we can make changes and reforms legislatively by having a vigorous debate, let’s actually do that, and not allow things like this to occur simply because one particular group in the process has the ear of the legislature, and they simply act without letting all of the various players weigh in. That did not happen here.”
McNesby wasn’t surprised to see the bill sail through — and with bipartisan support, no less. Five members of Philadelphia’s delegation in the House voted in favor of it, including Democratic state Rep. Maria Donatucci, the delegation’s chairwoman. “I do worry about [police officers’] safety. Once their name is out there, who knows what can happen. They’re sitting ducks sometimes,” she said. “Now their names can’t be released for 30 days. I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world.”
“We were expecting it from Day One,” McNesby said of the bill’s success. “We talked to a lot of different legislators. There was a lot of give and take. I think it’s actually a fair bill with common sense, and it gives a little peace of mind to officers.”
McNesby argued that it’s a compromise; a cop’s name can still be released, but not so quickly. “Right now, for most shootings, the investigation is still ongoing and they’re putting the names out before the ink’s even dry,” he said. But the American Civil Liberties Union derided the bill as “a policy that will heighten tensions between the police and the communities they serve.”
“We expect that,” said McNesby of objections to the bill. “Everybody wants to cry about transparency. But [the police department] doesn’t put out a suspect’s name unless they know for sure what happened.”
It’s an understatement to say the last few months have seen the discussions around police shootings grow more tense and divisive. Questionable police shootings, like the ones that led to the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota during the summer, were followed by targeted murders of cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The issue has of course bled into the presidential race, which has only added more fuel to the fire.
You can count Police Commissioner Richard Ross among those who have misgivings about the House bill. “In my opinion, the bill does little to further our efforts to improve police and community relations. Although we still have work to do, we have taken great strides to show the people of this city who we are, and that we have nothing to hide,” he said.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for the men and women in this department, and would never do anything that I believe would harm them in any way. But in my opinion, proponents of this bill may be missing the bigger picture.”
State Rep. Brian Sims called the bill “terrible” and was among those who voted against it. The police department, he said, already has policies in place to protect the families of cops who are involved in shootings. The bill is “not about making anybody safer, and it’s certainly not about making communities safer,” he said. “It’s intended to create more secrecy between police and the communities they’re hired to serve.” Sims said he views the legislation as a reward for the FOP for supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
For now, the police department will stick by its current policy of identifying officers 72 hours after they’ve been involved in a shooting. Ironically, hours after the bill passed through the House on Thursday, a pair of police officers were involved in a shooting in Juniata Park.
According to information released by the police department, two 24th District cops and their sergeant responded to a radio call for an “intoxicated, suicidal male, armed with a knife,” shortly before 11 p.m. They headed to Elsinore Street near Erie Avenue, where they were met by the man’s 26-year-old daughter.
When the cops entered the man’s house, they found him “seated in a chair in the kitchen, holding a large knife to his chest,” the department said. He allegedly stood and raised the blade above his head and moved towards the cops — after they reportedly told him to drop the weapon.
One of the officers was trained in crisis intervention, and twice used an “electronic control weapon”; both times, police said, the man removed the prongs from his body. He followed the cops outside the house, breaking the screen door’s frame, and advanced towards the cops, the department said. Both officers opened fire, and the man, whose name has not been released, was wounded in the torso. He was admitted to Temple University Hospital in critical but stable condition. The officers have been placed on administrative duty while Internal Affairs and the District Attorney’s Office investigate the shooting.
Follow @dgambacorta on Twitter.