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States Consider Legislation To Shield Law Enforcement Officers


Here's a question that was front and center during the 2014 protest in Ferguson, Mo. When someone is shot by a police officer, does the public have a right to know the officer's name? Reformers have been pushing for more transparency ever since. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, there's also been pushback from state lawmakers who say releasing names can endanger the police.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Legislators in Oregon generally take pride in their state's open-records laws, but last week, they were in a hurry to carve out an exception.


JEFF BARKER: Colleagues, this bill is deadly serious.

KASTE: That's State Representative Jeff Barker. He said the head of the state police had come to him in a panic over the safety of one of its officers. It's the officer who shot an antigovernment militant during the occupation of that wildlife refuge last month. The man who died has become a martyr for the anti-federal cause, and that's what worries Barker.


BARKER: And there's people who want to know the officer's name because they're going to kill him if they can identify him. This isn't a idle threat or somebody saying, you know, off the pig, or, we're really angry. This is specific.

KASTE: What Barker's proposing is actually pretty limited. Police can withhold an officer's name for 90 days if a judge agrees that there's a credible threat. But other states are considering broader shield laws. The Pennsylvania House has passed a bill that would prevent the release of any cop's name during a use-of-force investigation. It's a reaction against the Philadelphia Police Department's policy of releasing names three days after an incident, which is way too quick if you ask Joseph Regan of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police.

JOSEPH REGAN: I think what most of the guys are worried about is their families. That's what they're worried about.

KASTE: What's striking about the Pennsylvania legislation is that if no charges are filed against the officer, his name could remain a secret, and Regan says that's only fair.

REGAN: What about when people make complaints against police officers and it's unfounded? Do we put that out all the time, too? Is that subject to right to know? The officer did nothing wrong. Why is the information being put out?

KASTE: This view is contrary to what the reformers want. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative was a member of the President's Task Force on Twenty-First Century Policing.

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think that any effort to conceal the identity of someone in a moment of controversy undermines the ability to build trust.

KASTE: Still, the reformers don't have specific rules in mind. There's no national standard for how and when an officer's name should be released, and that leaves the field open for state legislation, such as the bill that just passed the Senate in Virginia. It lets departments keep all officers' names secret, not just those involved in shootings. Meghan Rhyne of the Viginia Coalition for Open Government says the bill is being justified in part by officer safety.

MEGHAN RHYNE: I can understand where that fear is coming from. I don't know that anyone has been able to trace any kinds of targeting against police officers to the fact that their name is public.

KASTE: And the fact is, national statistics show there really has not been a meaningful increase in the number of attacks on police since Ferguson. Rhyne says she gets it that many cops feel targeted, but she says that doesn't justify letting the police become an anonymous force. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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