With Sunshine Week just around the corner, there are two bills kicking around the Pennsylvania Senate’s Law and Justice Committee that would make it illegal for public officials and police captains to release the names of police officers involved in officer-related shootings, or cases where “use of force” is involved, until the end of an “official investigation.” The legislation came as a response to former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s policy to release the names of officers within 72 hours of a police-involved shooting or use of force incident. Officials from the Philadelphia Police Department have confirmed that the policy is still in place with Commissioner Richard Ross leading the force.
The first bill is State Representative Martina White’s House Bill 1538, which cleared the House by an overwhelming 162-38 vote, and the second bill is State Senator John Rafferty’s Senate Bill 1061, which is very similar to Representative White’s bill. There is one main difference in Senator Rafferty’s bill. His bill includes an enforcement mechanism that would make it a second degree misdemeanor for public officials and police captains to release to the public the names of police officers involved in these cases. Under Pennsylvania’s judicial code, this would be similar to committing arson, resisting arrest, impersonating a public servant and bigamy. Yes, bigamy – or having more than one spouse. This offense could cost an official up to $5,000 and/or two years in jail.
Both Martina White and John Rafferty have had the support of the Fraternal Order of Police or the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association for their political campaigns. Representative White received $5,000 in contributions from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and held her special election victory party at the union’s Northeast Philadelphia lodge. Senator Rafferty, who is the only Republican running for Attorney General, picked up endorsements from the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and the 40,000 member Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police when he announced his candidacy for the office.
Two of the organizations that oppose the bill are the American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania chapter and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a trade group representing newspapers and advocating for government transparency.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania believes that these bills are aimed at communities of color for speaking out against police misconduct and is nothing more than “petty political backlash by powerful people” for the rise of Black Lives Matter. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association makes the argument that the term “use of force” is a loosely defined term. These bills would “shield from public view the identity of officers involved in almost all use of force incidents and police-involved shooting incidents,” and later states “‘[u]se of force’ has been defined differently in different circumstances and can range from physical restraint to firearms, sprays, Taser and similar devices, canines and vehicles.”
In a December 2015 newsletter by the PNA, the organization describes an incident where a police chief could possibly be charged with a crime for disclosing the name of a police officer involved in a shooting to find a suspect that fired upon police. The newsletter stated:
The Chief chose to release the video, as well as the officer’s name and the suspect’s name, to engage the community in the hunt for the suspect. The suspect remains at large. If Senate Bill 1061 became law, Chief Bentzel would have committed a crime by providing details about the incident, including the officer’s name, in an attempt to catch a suspect described as armed and dangerous
Historically, the Senate Law and Justice Committee deals with justice issues and holds hearings for incoming Pennsylvania State Police Commissioners, but if there is one roadblock holding back this legislation, it would be how often the committee has met this legislative session, what issues the committee has dealt with and the committee leader’s prior experience with opening state and local governments to the Sunshine Act. The Senate Law and Justice Committee has held six meetings since the beginning of the legislative session and has acted a dumping ground for bills aiming to privatize the Commonwealth’s liquor system because of the committee chair’s prior opposition to privatizing the Commonwealth’s liquor system. Furthermore, Senator Chuck McIlhinney, the chairman for the Law and Justice Committee, has a history of opening government transparency. In 2002, Senator McIlhinney played an important role in strengthening Pennsylvania’s lack-luster Sunshine Act as a junior Representative. The legislation opened meetings held by state and local governments and agencies and added fines for entities on a per-day basis that refused to release requested documents when ordered by the courts. Fourteen years after Senator McIlhinney’s role in updating Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, he is once again going to be an important figure in keeping local and municipal governments open and transparent because he holds the power on whether or not to bring these bills up for a vote in committee.
Both Martina White and John Rafferty are in contested elections and both have the support of the special interests groups pursuing this legislation. If they were to make it out of committee they will more than likely breeze through the Republican dominated Senate chamber.
State Senator John Rafferty’s office was reached for comment via email as to why public officials and police captains would be charged with a second degree misdemeanor for releasing the name of a police officer involved in an officer related shooting or a “use of force” case. The Senator’s office did not respond.