The public would have to wait 90 days to learn the names of police officers involved in shootings under a measure proposed by Arizona law enforcement associations.
The Arizona Police Association and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association drafted legislation mandating that law enforcement agencies at all levels throughout the state wait 90 days before releasing the name of an officer involved in a “deadly force incident.” That includes any instance in which an officer fires a weapon, regardless of whether a suspect or victim is uninjured, harmed or killed.
Michael Williams, a lobbyist for the associations, said an officer’s name would eventually be made public and be a part of the public record. But in the interest of the officer’s safety, a 90-day wait would provide a cooling-off period, Williams said.
He and union officials cited protests and high tensions in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, and in New York after a black man died after being placed in a chokehold by a white officer. Withholding the name of the officer for his or her safety and the safety of an officer’s family is “paramount to having the name released,” Williams said.
“There would be a certain period of time when the officer’s name would not be released, so especially if it’s an emotionally charged issue, there’d be a little cooling-off period,” Williams said.
Sens. Steve Smith and Don Shooter have been contacted by the associations, who are hoping one of the legislators will sponsor the measure.
Smith, R-Maricopa, said he’s waiting to determine the merits of the bill until he’s shown draft language. He may also be interested in changing the number of days unions propose withholding an officer’s name, Smith said.
“In principle, I hear it and I think there’s certainly some validity to the reasoning behind it, but I want to make sure that it’s vetted properly, too,” Smith said.
Shooter, R-Yuma, said he’s been told about the measure but had yet to be shown bill language, and declined to comment.
Civil rights activist Rev. Jarrett Maupin said he agreed with the unions in spirit, but the proposed measure could stir up more controversy rather than quell anger following police shootings.
“I disagree with the length of time, and I do think they need to be very clear what will be built into the bill to allow the community to have justice and transparency, and the media, too,” Maupin said. “It could easily have the opposite effect, and not cool off the community, but infuriate people.”
Maupin said the law shouldn’t apply to officers who use unlawful or excessive force in a shooting. The unions are working on language that would waive an officer’s right to privacy under the measure if the officer was charged with a crime related to the shooting, Williams said.
Neither union officials nor Williams could point to an instance when an officer in Arizona involved in a fatal shooting was harmed as retaliation.
Neither could Craig Mehrens, an attorney who has represented law enforcement officials in several high-profile cases, including the 2013 trial of Richard Chrisman, a former Phoenix police officer charged with fatally shooting an unarmed suspect and his dog.
Obviously emotions run high in such cases, but Mehrens said most of what he’s heard while representing the officers involved amounted to nothing more than “saber-rattling.”
“I’ve seen threats against officers and other clients, I’ve gotten threats myself.
I’ve gotten hate mail,” Mehrens said. “Certainly in Chrisman’s case we got some pretty nasty stuff because he was white and the victim was Hispanic…
We just never took it seriously. And I can’t think back and think any of it was really like a death threat.”
Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said the fact that nothing’s happened invalidates the union’s argument for the bill.
“When you can’t point to some instance when it’s actually ever happened… that tells you (that) you don’t have an argument,” Barr said. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on the opponents to come up with something negative when it doesn’t exist.”
There’s no constitutional requirement that an officer’s name be released after a shooting. But Barr said that in a potentially deadly incident of police interaction with the public, as much information as possible should be made available immediately.
“This is solely an issue of public access to information under Arizona public records laws and public policy, that when a police shooting takes place, that there should be the fullest amount of information provided to the public about the shooting, and not some sanitized version from the police department,” he said.
There are already exemptions under Arizona state law that allow personal information about law enforcement officers, such as their home address, to be stricken from the public record. Yet information that is often supposed to be kept private somehow still makes it into the public realm, often published by news outlets, Williams said.
Williams cited the case of Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, as an instance when reporters revealed an officer’s home address.
Several news outlets, including the New York Times, published the street name on which Wilson lived, as well as the name of his town, though not his full home address.
Ken Crane, vice president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said the release of an officer’s name, and subsequent discovery of other information about the officer so soon after a shooting, can “put some people at risk.”
A uniform policy throughout the state would provide guidance in cases such as the fatal shooting of 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon in December, Crane said.
Brisbon was unarmed when he was shot by Phoenix Police Officer Mark Rine on December 2. The shooting of an unarmed black man by a white Phoenix policeman drew comparisons to Ferguson and New York, as well as numerous protests in Phoenix.
Crane said the union was not pleased by the decision of former Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia to release Rine’s name a week after the shooting.
“We think everybody would’ve been much better served holding off on that for several weeks and let things settle down,” Crane said. “Especially with what we’ve seen recently with the shootings perceived to be controversial by the public, I think it does bring an element of risk to the officer involved…
We’re seeing the landscape out there really change.”
Protests following the fatal shooting of Brisbon gave the unions a cause for concern in Phoenix, though Williams acknowledged that none of the protests in Arizona have gotten out of hand.
Crane said the union’s concern is with “radical elements” of the protest, “the people that just live to go out there, and they’re looking to be that spark that lights the fuse of the powder keg,” he said.
The fact that nothing has happened to an officer to date doesn’t mean the legislation isn’t necessary, Crane said.
“We could sit here and debate this all day, which I’m not going to do, but do we wait until somebody gets hurt?” Crane asked.
Like Maupin, Barr argued that waiting even a week to release an officer’s name only adds to the frustration a community feels following a controversial police-involved shooting. Police in Ferguson waited six days before revealing Wilson’s name, while negative information regarding the shooting victim, Brown, was released – a decision that only further infuriated protestors, Barr said.
Barr said it’s disingenuous for police to argue that an officer’s safety is at risk immediately following a shooting, but not 90 days later.
“It’s really cynical in that they’re hoping people’s attention would get diverted elsewhere,” Barr said. “In the meantime they get to release all sorts of information about the person who got shot and no information about the police officer… you learn about what a horrible person the person who got shot is.”