IN THIS SOCIAL-media era, in which a local cop's decision to shoot a citizen can go viral in hours, House Bill 1538 might seem anachronistic, as something that roaring public debates are made of.
But the bill is popular in Harrisburg, and protesters - at least in the streets - have been all but nonexistent.
The legislation, which has won the backing of police unions across the state, would shield the names of on-duty officers involved in shootings or the use of force while the incidents are being investigated. Their names could be released only after an investigation is completed if they are criminally charged.
The law also would bar the release of an officer's name after an investigation if the release can "reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property of the law-enforcement officer or an immediate family member of the law-enforcement officer."
Giving officers this type of anonymity "is a dark path to go down," Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad said at a news conference yesterday.
Muhammad is lending his voice to a growing chorus of critics of the bill, including outgoing Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who recently implemented a policy of releasing officers' names 72 hours after a shooting; and Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, who will continue to enforce Ramsey's policy, said Lauren Hitt, his campaign spokeswoman.
Police Department spokesman Lt. John Stanford said incoming Commissioner Richard Ross was not available for comment and would not offer an opinion on the bill until he takes office.
"No. 1, it will end transparency," Muhammad said of the bill. "That's a frightening thing for the public when it comes to our own safety. No. 2, it would cast a cloud on good police and good policing." He added that it would deal a "death blow" to good community relations and would compound the grief of families of those shot by police officers.
"The NAACP plans to fight this, whether we have to fight it trying to win in the Legislature, a battle regrettably we are losing. But if we have to fight it in the courts to test the constitutionality of this, we're prepared to do that," he said.
On Nov. 17, the House passed the bill 162-38, and it now awaits a hearing in the Senate's Law and Justice Committee.
State Rep. Martina White, of Northeast Philadelphia, sponsored the bill. During a speech on the House floor last month she called officers "modern-day heroes" who could be targets of violence if their names are released to the public after they've used force.
"As American citizens, our police are protected by the constitutional right to due process. They do not deserve to have their fate determined by the media or a mob with a political agenda," she said.
"They and their families have a right to security. We must not expose our law-enforcement officers to the exact situations that they try to prevent us from experiencing, such as harassment and violence," she said.
David Foster, White's spokesman, said he knew of no incidents in which a citizen was arrested for harming an officer involved in a use-of-force investigation.
"But that doesn't mean threats or intimidation doesn't happen," Foster said. "We want to make sure police officers and their families are protected before a situation spirals out of control."
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