Pittsburgh FOP head backs proposal to keep cops anonymous during investigations

Pittsburgh’s police union head today said he backs the concept of controversial legislation that would bar disclosure of the names of police officers under investigation in shooting or other use-of-force incidents.

“We’re absolutely supportive of it,” said Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1.

Officer McQuillan said he had not seen the actual bill. He deferred comment on the specifics because he noted that it would likely undergo considerable change before making its way out of committee. But he said his union endorses the bill’s premise: to keep the names of police officers a secret during a pending investigation and even afterwards, depending on the circumstances.

“In general, it’s not just the safety of the officer, but the officer’s family,” Officer McQuillan said. “We’ve seen when the media goes to the policeman’s house and everybody’s taping and showing the house and cars. That becomes not just an issue for the officer and his family, but the department as well. They’re going to have to allocate resources to protect the officer and his family during the investigation.”

Officer McQuillan, like his union counterpart in Philadelphia, said he was not aware of any specific incident in which an officer or an officer’s family was harmed or threatened upon being identified publicly during an investigation into a shooting or other situation in which force was used.

Pittsburgh public safety spokesman Emily Schaffer has not responded to several requests for comment about Chief Cameron McLay’s position on the legislation.

House Bill 1538 was introduced Sept. 11 by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia. It has garnered support from 39 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the House.

“What happens when the officer hasn’t done anything wrong but the names get disclosed anyway? That’s where the issue arises, and that’s what we’re trying to protect in this legislation,” Ms. White said. “Officers today need to know that when they do their job right they’re not going to be punished for it.”

The bill would forbid public employees from naming police officers under investigation for shootings or using other force. If an officer is charged with a crime related to the use of force, the identity could be released. But if there are no charges brought, and identifying an officer can be “reasonably expected to cause harm” to the officer or an immediate family member, then the name can continue to be withheld.

Ms. White, a financial analyst whose district is home to numerous police officers, drafted her bill against the backdrop of national tensions between law enforcement agencies and black citizens. Ms. White said that she believes the legislation would prevent knee-jerk reactions by “revenge-seeking people.”

While civil liberties, media and open-records advocates perceive the bill would diminish police accountability and have a corrosive effect on police-community relations, Ms. White said she believes the opposite is true.

“We have to build better relations between communities and officers. And I think that, in part, my bill leads to that because it allows for clarity, it allows for facts, It allows for assumptions not to be made about what transpired. It allows for time to pass so not only can tempers settle..but it allows for the facts to come out,”

Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, disagrees.

“This kind of law could actually make relations between the police and community worse because it suggests that police have something to hide. If the police are doing their job properly there’s no reason to hide,” Mr. Hoover said.

“The other thing is, there’s an implication here that police officers only do their job incorrectly when they’re charged with a crime. What job in America is that the case? If an officer acts inappropriately or unprofessionally, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime, the public still has a right to know that that public servant acted inappropriately or unprofessionally. Did they follow their training? That might not rise to the level of a crime, but the public should still know.”

Mr. Hoover and Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said the overarching issue is one of transparency and accountability.

“They’re choosing a career that carries a certain degree of danger and risk and a certain degree of accountability,” Ms. Pittinger said. “Trying to hide the name of a person involved in a use-of-force incident doesn’t do anything but raise suspicions that the fix is in and we’re going to cover this up and protect.”

Said Mr. Hoover: “Police officers are public employees. and we give them a lot of power, including the power to use deadly force. So with that kind of power comes a need for accountability and transparency. This bill goes in the opposite direction. We only find out who the public employee is if they’re charged with a crime as a result of a shooting.”

Mr. Hoover acknowledged that the bill allows for police officers who are not charged to be identified if no harm is perceived — something that would be decided, Ms. White said, by a police chief or commissioner. However, he said, “If this law is in effect, one could presume that a police chief would err on the side of not releasing the name in order to not clash with their rank and file.”

One of the factors prompting Ms. White to introduce her bill was the decision this summer by Philadelphia police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to identify officers involved in shootings within 72 hours — a time frame Ms. White termed “arbitrary.” Mr. Ramsey’s move came after a US Justice Department report found that the city’s officers shot at people nearly once a week on average.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported: “The move — a first for the department — is in line with recommendations issued by the Department of Justice and the presidential policing task force Ramsey led. Under the new policy, the department will release the officer’s name within 72 hours of a police-involved shooting, unless there is a threat against the officer or family members. The department has long declined to release the names of officers involved in shootings, citing safety concerns.”

Mr. Ramsey was not available for comment. But his spokesman, Lt. John Stanford, wrote in an email that the department will evaluate whether a “credible threat” exists. If so, “The officer will have police protection if so desired and their address will be highlighted in our system for any 911 calls from that location to receive top priority regarding police response. The department will work with the officers to monitor the officer’s social medial print and account for any issue that could arise. This process was thought out with the safety of the officer as top priority as well as the best interest of the public.”

Then, Lt. Stanford wrote, “the commissioner has stated before that ‘an officer can’t shoot someone and have a expectation to remain anonymous, it’s just not right’.”

Is anonymity what Rep. White and her supporters want? No, said John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, which represents 14,500 active and retired officers. Mr. McNesby said the bill is not an effort to cover up anything. It’s about allowing time for tempers to cool, for the official apparatus to work through an investigation, and to keep officers and their families safe.

“There’s no reason to rush to judgment and release the officers’ names in three days. It makes no sense,” Mr. McNesby said.

He added that numerous law enforcement agencies keep an eye on the police.

“This is by far not a cover-up. It’s not a whitewash. We just don’t want a witch hunt. We just want our officers safe. This is common-sense legislation.”

State Sen. John Sabatina Jr.,D-Philadelphia, said he will be working on introducing a companion bill in his chamber and said there were modifications that needed to be made to Ms. White’s version. Her bill, for instance, has no repercussions spelled out for violations — though Ms. White’s office said that the remedy would be to file a lawsuit.

Mr. Sabatina plans to attend a news conference Monday in Harrisburg to discuss the bill, along with Ms. White, members of several police unions and Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick.

Mr. Readshaw today declined comment.

Mr. Sabatina, a former prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, has a tough-on-crime background. His online Senate biography states that “he represented citizens by prosecuting some of the city’s most dangerous criminals in major jury trials for crimes such as robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, drugs and attempted murder.”

“I believe that protecting the identity of the police officers, at least for a period of time, is necessary just so there are no vindictive repercussions brought on by someone’s family or friends or otherwise people angry with the fact that the officer had to use force to subdue the suspect,” Mr. Sabatina said.

“At some point in time,” he added, “I do believe the officer’s name will come out whether he is charged or whether he is not charged.”

That, Mr. Sabatina said, might be an issue that he and his colleagues work on amending.

“I think maybe the tweaks are coming to this bill to promote and facilitate the public’s right to know and the media’s right to find out. There’s got to be a balance between the public’s right to know and the protection of the officer and his family in this instance. What my intention is is to try to strike that balance.”

Terry Mutchler, the former head of the state Office of Open Records and now a lawyer in private practice, comes from a law enforcement family. Her father was a military police officer, her brother is a retired police officer, one nephew is the head of the police union in Louisville, Ken. and another is a veteran detective sergeant in Indiana. She had this to say:

“I think legislation like this can be dangerous. A snapshot of the nation right now — whether Baltimore, Ferguson or Cleveland — demonstrates that accountability in our police departments and in our government in general is paramount. The Supreme Court in Pennsylvania said loud and clear the right to know is designed to prohibit secrets, scrutinize actions of public officials and hold public officials accountable for heir actions.

“This type of legislation, while very well intended, which I understand coming from a long family of cops, collides with open government. Government must be open and transparent no matter how difficult that may seem at times.”

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.