Building Trust, Or Danger? Debate Over Naming Officers After Shootings After a police shooting, what information should be disclosed to the public? That question is roiling Philadelphia, where a bill aims to keep confidential the names of officers who use deadly force.
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Building Trust, Or Danger? Debate Over Naming Officers After Shootings

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Building Trust, Or Danger? Debate Over Naming Officers After Shootings

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Building Trust, Or Danger? Debate Over Naming Officers After Shootings

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Philadelphia, a debate is simmering between the city's police commissioner and rank-and-file officers. It's over whether the public should be given the names of police officers involved in shootings. As Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports, the city's police union is pushing state legislation to shield the identity of police who fire their weapons.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: When his son was fatally shot by police, Terrell Tate-Skinner demanded to know who did it. He saw getting the names as the first step to justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

TERRELL TATE-SKINNER: I will die before I not find out what happened to my son.

ALLYN: Tate-Skinner and a couple dozen activists staged a rally outside a Philadelphia Police headquarters last December shortly after Brandon Tate-Brown was killed by police during a struggle, following a routine traffic stop. Who killed Brandon Tate-Brown became a rallying cry of the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

TATE-SKINNER: I need answers to what happened to my son.

ALLYN: The tension highlights a common dilemma facing officials in the wake of a tragedy. What information should be disclosed to the public and what should remain secret? After years of criticism that police investigations in Philadelphia were too opaque, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey overturned the long-standing policy of withholding officers' names. Now the department identifies officers three days after a shooting incident.

COMMISSIONER CHARLES RAMSEY: I don't think you can shoot someone and expect to remain anonymous. And I do think that we have a responsibility as a police agency, that work for the people, to provide that information unless there are some extenuating circumstances.

ALLYN: The change had the backing of criminal justice activists and the U.S. Department of Justice. But the leader of the city's influential police union, John McNesby, pushed back, calling the move insane and absurd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN MCNESBY: It makes it a little bit more difficult today because you actually have to look over your shoulder. We have families too. We're not asking, you know, for the world, we're asking for fairness.

ALLYN: Speaking at an event packed wall-to-wall with police, McNesby laid out new legislation that would prevent cities across Pennsylvania from revealing the names of officers who fire their weapons unless charges are filed. The state representative sponsoring the bill says the identities of officers who use deadly force should be kept secret to protect police from harassment and possible attacks. Retired police officer Rich Costello was among those cheering in the police union hall when the proposed legislation was announced.

RICH COSTELLO: It's extremely reasonable, and it's something that would be observed in the case of any other citizen in this country. Unfortunately, police are guilty until proven innocent. That's what this bill attempts to combat.

ALLYN: Brian Buchner leads the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. He says releasing officer names builds public trust, but it's no panacea.

BRIAN BUCHNER: It's not necessarily going to calm tensions where there is tension between a community and the police department, but it's information, you know, patterns of conduct or decisions about that conduct by the agency itself.

ALLYN: In most states, police departments aren't required by state law to divulge officer's names after a deadly interaction. But Buckner says, activists in many places are fighting to make departments more upfront about what officer was involved. In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Ramsey says, if an officer feels in danger, the name won't be revealed. He says the public has a responsibility too.

RAMSEY: To not then use this to threaten people or cause harm to people. You know, you have to be concerned about that, but I think that it doesn't outweigh the public's need to really have that information.

ALLYN: The Pennsylvania bill keeping police names anonymous has the support of nearly a fourth of the state House of Representatives. Ramsey says if the bill passes, he'll call on Governor Tom Wolf to veto it. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.

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