Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed legislation Monday delaying identification of officers in police-involved shootings, citing the importance of maintaining transparency for the sake of community relations.
“While I am deeply concerned for the safety of the Commonwealth’s police officers, government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government, and as such, I cannot sign into law a policy that will enshrine the withholding of information in the public interest,” Wolf said in his veto message. “These situations in particular – when law enforcement uses deadly force – demand utmost transparency, otherwise a harmful mistrust will grow between police officers and the communities they protect and serve.”
House Bill 1538 would have mandated police departments withhold the names of officers involved in police shootings and other “violent confrontations” for 30 days, or until criminal charges have been filed or an investigation has been completed. Officials who break this rule would face a second-degree misdemeanor charge.
Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, sponsored the bill last year as a way to protect officers and their families from threats and harassment in the wake of publicized uses of force.
“I wish the governor had recognized the importance of protecting police officers and their families,” she said. “In these politically charged times, an officer’s identity should be withheld for at least 30 days in order to allow facts to come to light as to whether the officer should be charged with an offense or cleared, and any threats against the officers or their families have dissipated.”
Under current law, departments follow individual policies regarding the release of officer information. The Philadelphia police, for example, releases an officer’s name within 72 hours — a decision backed by the Department of Justice, but not the city’s Fraternal Order of Police.
John McNesby, president of the FOP’s Philadelphia Lodge 5, called Wolf’s veto “a very disappointing act of abject political cowardice.”
“At a time of widespread deadly assaults on police, Wolf displayed a callous disregard for the safety of Philadelphia Police officers by spinelessly caving to the howling mob of anti-police hate groups,” he said Monday. “Sadly, once again a politician has endangered police in order to protect his own thin political hide.”
HB 1538 passed through the Legislature last month with overwhelming bipartisan support. The 41 elected officials who voted against the bill — nine in the Senate and 32 in the House — argued the decision should have been left at the local level.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on Monday called the bill a “backlash to the grassroots movement of people calling for fairer treatment by police.”
“By rejecting this bill, Governor Wolf took a stand for transparency and accountability,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This legislation would have taken us backwards, at the exact time that people are increasingly calling for more openness and fairness from police departments. There is nothing fair or open about withholding information from the public after someone has been injured or killed by an employee who is on the taxpayers’ payroll.”
White vowed Monday to reintroduce the bill come January.
“Shootings are increasingly political,” she said. “That places the lives of our officers and the lives of their family members in danger. While we need transparency whenever police are involved in a shooting, we owe our officers basic protection from threats.”
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