By Kelvyn Anderson
Since 1993, the mission of Philadelphia's Police Advisory Commission has been to improve the relationship between police and citizens of our city by providing independent, objective reviews of police actions and policies that build mutual accountability, trust, and collaboration.
We believe that mission is undermined by recent action in Harrisburg.
The state House of Representatives on Nov. 17 passed House Bill 1538, which provides that "pending the conclusion of an official investigation that involves the discharge of a firearm or use of force by a law enforcement officer during the performance of the law enforcement officer's official duties, the name and identifying information of the law enforcement officer may not be released to the public by any public official or public employee conducting or participating in the official investigation or any person acting on behalf of such public official or public employee."
But the bill goes much further. It allows the release of officers' identity only if they have been criminally charged, creating an additional requirement that names be withheld if the release of the information 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."
We believe the restrictions imposed by H.B. 1538 would undermine both the fragile state of police-community relations in general and the specific intent of police reforms currently on the table in Philadelphia as a result of the Department of Justice's review of police shootings, completed in March.
While the language of H.B. 1538 purports to protect police in the commonwealth from retaliation by disgruntled citizens, the bill is rooted in our local police union's pointed objections to these reforms and is also connected to an unfair labor practice complaint being considered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
While we respect the give-and-take of the collective bargaining process, expanding the concerns of an individual bargaining unit to throw a cloak of invisibility over the actions of all police in the commonwealth would create a protected class of public officials that is contrary to the notion of Sir Robert Peel, who is regarded as the father of modern police, that "the police are the public and the public are the police."
Though the public rhetoric of the bill's supporters suggests the problem is commonplace, we have seen no examples of private citizens posing credible threats to officers who use force.
When Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey began releasing the names of officers involved in shootings earlier this year as a result of recommendations from the Justice Department, he did so only after carefully examining any threats to those officers and their families.
We are deeply concerned that no public hearing has been held to carefully consider the ramifications of the restrictions contained in this bill. H.B. 1538 would undermine the discretion and accountability mechanisms of police administrators, elected officials, and police oversight professionals like Philadelphia's commission and our colleagues at the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board.
The majority of citizen complaints against police filed with both the commission and the Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Division concern use of force by police officers. Under the terms of H.B. 1538, neither the commission nor Internal Affairs could publicly identify officers who are the subjects of completed investigations involving the use of force. This conflicts directly with the terms of Philadelphia Executive Order 7-11, which provides that completed investigations be filed under the names of the officers and be publicly available.
We join our colleagues in Pittsburgh, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups around the commonwealth in opposition to H.B. 1538's hiding or appearing to hide the actions of police from legitimate public scrutiny.