When a large, serious effort to answer an important question fails, sometimes there’s a problem with the question. That seems to be the case regarding whether police should make public the names of officers involved in duty-related killings.
There’s widespread agreement the officer should be identified if such a killing results in a criminal charge. Opinions vary about naming the officer during the long period of determining whether there will be a charge, or anytime if there’s no charge regardless of the circumstances.
The public has an interest in monitoring the performance of its law enforcers, a greater interest than for ordinary government workers due to the special powers and responsibilities of policing. Police have an interest in carrying out those responsibilities and using those powers when needed without unreasonable second-guessing of or interfering with their work, or unnecessary compromising of their safety. The potential conflict of these interests seems unavoidable, resulting in widely varying policies or the absence of a policy about identifying officers.
New Jersey has no law requiring or banning disclosure of the identity of an officer involved in a killing, leaving it up to local jurisdictions. Some follow the policy of the attorney general’s Shooting Response Team that investigates shootings by police officers, which doesn’t name officers unless they’ve been charged.
That’s also the policy of the police in the District of Columbia and Chicago, where the police union got a non-disclosure policy adopted two decades ago.
Federal agencies are prohibited by the federal Privacy Act from releasing the name of an officer unless charged with a crime.
Yet Philadelphia, at the urging of the U.S. Justice Department, releases the names of officers involved in killings within 72 hours unless there is evidence of a credible threat to the officer from doing so. California considers the names of police officers part of the public record unless threats have been made against them. Las Vegas for many years has simply identified all officers involved in shootings.
The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill last year requiring a 30-day wait to release officers’ names — and the governor vetoed it.
The Police Executive Research Forum, which advises police chiefs nationwide, said it has not found any standards or model policies on naming officers in killings.
Perhaps there can’t be one policy that fits all situations because the determination of such matters as whether an officer’s safety would be jeopardized or an investigation compromised must be made locally in each case.
But maybe the right question is not when’s the right time to name officers, but what approach would be best for police and the public?
The public wants confident knowledge that the police are performing responsibly and that appropriate actions are taken when they’re not. The police want to know the public understands the challenging responsibilities it has placed on them and appreciates their professionalism and their efforts in life-risking situations. Both goals are served by awareness.
Since secrecy makes people suspicious, the police and the public would be best served by routine disclosure of officer identities whenever possible.
Indeed, the more routinely officers in shootings are named, the more reassuring it would be to the public that everything’s being handled as it should.
So New Jersey’s practice of leaving disclosure decisions to local law-enforcement agencies is a good one — as long as chiefs and county prosecutors understand that being as open as possible about police shooting incidents is beneficial to the police themselves as well as the public.