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October 15, 2016

Pennsylvania bill would protect identity of officers in police-involved shootings

A piece of legislation that would protect Pennsylvania police officers' identities when they use force or fire their weapons is under consideration in the state Senate.

House Bill 1538 sailed through the GOP-controlled House with many Democrats on board in 2015 shortly after the Philadelphia Police Department adopted a policy of releasing officers' names when they discharge their firearms in officer-involved shootings within 72 hours of the incident.

Under the proposed law, an officer's name would only be released if he or she was subsequently charged with a crime in relation to the use of force or if doing so posed no threat to the officer.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Martina White, a Republican who was elected to represent Northeast Philadelphia's 170th District in a a spring 2015 special election.

“As we’ve seen across the country, shootings involving police officers have become so politically charged that the officers’ lives and their families can be endangered even if the use of force was justified,” White said in a statement last fall when the bill passed the House.

“While we need transparency whenever police are involved in a shooting, we owe our officers basic protection from threats."

Tensions between communities — particularly African American communities — and police have escalated over the past few years after several incidents in which officers used deadly force against black people.

In Philadelphia, the shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown at the hands of police in Mayfair during a December 2014 traffic stop led to protests when the names of the officers involved were not released and no charges were filed.

The identities of the officers were eventually released in June 2015, and the department's new policy of releasing officers' names was put in place shortly afterward.

The policy was met with heavy backlash by the local police union when it was implemented by now-former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 President John McNesby called the policy "ridiculous" and voiced his support for White's bill, saying it would protect the families of officers from being victims of revenge taken by criminals.

Ramsey, who retired in January 2016, has said that the department's policy of releasing officers' names promotes transparency and that White's proposed law would be a "mistake." The policy has continued under current Commissioner Richard Ross.

While the legislation passed the House by a large margin with a vote of 162-38, some representatives voiced their opposition, such as Philadelphia Democrats Brian Sims and Jordan Harris.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has said the bill "diminishes transparency" and implies that police have something to hide.

The bill will be taken up by the Senate Law & Justice Committee when state lawmakers reconvene on Monday, Oct. 17.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, the bill is likely to pass. However, it would then go to the desk of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Wolf Spokesperson Jeffrey Sheridan said the administration expected amendments to be added to the bill, and so therefore it was premature to comment on the legislation at this time.