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Judge: FOP can't keep police from identifying officers who shoot

City attorneys applauded the ruling by Judge Daniel J. Anders, though union attorneys had argued releasing names puts officers in danger.

.John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, declined to comment.
.John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, declined to comment.Read moreDavid Maialetti

A Philadelphia judge Friday denied an attempt by the local police union to block a Police Department policy that allows officials to release the names of officers who shoot people within 72 hours — a long-standing debate that was rekindled last month when a group of protesters staged a profanity-laced demonstration outside an officer's Bustleton home.

The ruling from Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel J. Anders, which followed a hearing in City Hall, was applauded by attorneys for the city, who had argued that the policy was enacted in the name of public trust. Cities across the country in recent years faced waves of angry protests after delaying in identifying officers who fatally shot people. Sozi Pedro Tulante, city solicitor, said Philadelphia wanted to avoid such tensions.

"It's really important for the Police Department to have transparency," Tulante said.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, declined to comment after the hearing.

The union, however, released a statement Friday evening saying: "The standard for obtaining an injunction is high, and the judge felt that based on the evidence available … the standards for relief [were] not met."

Lawyers for the union, led by Marc Gelman, had sought to convince Anders that releasing the names of officers put them and their families in danger. They said that Officer Ryan Pownall — who fatally shot a man during a traffic stop in June — had received death threats over the summer, and that his wife feared for the safety of their children, particularly following the protest outside the Pownalls' home last month.

The issue of naming police officers following shootings has stirred debate nationally and locally for several years.

In 2015, just days after the Philadelphia Police Department announced it would release the names of officers involved in shootings within 72 hours, the FOP filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint to block the policy. That process is ongoing, with another hearing scheduled for December.

Also in 2015, the Republican governor of Arizona vetoed a bill that would have prevented departments from releasing officers' names for 60 days. Similar legislation was proposed but not passed in Oregon, and courts in Virginia and California have also wrestled with the issue.

Last fall, Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed legislation that would have delayed the release of officers' names for 30 days. A nearly identical bill — sponsored by Rep. Martina White, a Republican who represents a Northeast Philadelphia district where many police officers live — was overwhelmingly passed by the House in March, but has not yet been approved by the Senate. A spokesman for Wolf said Friday his opposition to the bill as currently drafted remains unchanged.

The debate in Philadelphia was renewed with added urgency last month after a small but raucous group of protesters staged a provocative demonstration outside the home of Pownall, who fatally shot David Jones in North Philadelphia on June 8.

Following that protest — during which demonstrators hung signs on lampposts calling for Pownall's arrest — the FOP filed suit in Common Pleas Court seeking an injunction that would block the department from employing the policy, citing safety concerns for officers.

Tulante countered that the city has released the names of 64 officers since it enacted the policy in 2015, and that the FOP had not identified any other cases where an officer had reported being in danger. Tulante also said the city provided round-the-clock protection for Pownall following the shooting of Jones, and placed a surveillance camera on his block.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, said that while there is no national standard regarding when or how to release an officer's name, most departments have leaned in recent years that "the sooner they get this information out, the better."

"Generally speaking, what police chiefs have learned is that the public has a right to know," he said.

Pownall last month was suspended from the force with intent to dismiss for exhibiting what Commissioner Richard Ross called "poor judgment" when firing at Jones. The Attorney General's Office is investigating for potential criminal charges.

Protesters, meanwhile, have said they might return to Pownall's block if he is not arrested.