By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
A social justice movement knows that it is having an impact when it faces backlash. And so it is with the movement for black lives and the response it’s getting from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
As people from communities around the state and around the country have called for fairer treatment from the police and more transparency in how police operate, our state legislature is maneuvering to use state law to withhold as much information as possible from the public.
Next week, the state House of Representatives is prepared to vote on legislation to hide the identities of police officers who kill or seriously injure someone. Public officials could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for violating the gag order.
Ostensibly, this public blackout would last 30 days. But the bill also prohibits releasing an officer’s name if doing so “can reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property” of the officer or his family. In practice, the gag order will go on indefinitely. What public official would risk it otherwise, especially with the threat of criminal charges?
The supporters argue “safety,” as they always do when they want to undermine civil liberties. And yet they cannot point to a single documented case in which the safety of an officer who used force was under credible threat of harm.
In November, Governor Wolf vetoed a similar bill, and in his veto statement, he said, “Government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government. I cannot agree to sign this bill, because it will enshrine into law a policy to withhold important information from the public.”
We agree. Police officers are public employees with extraordinary powers. They have the power to deprive people of their liberty and even to deprive people of their lives. With that power comes the expectation that they will operate with openness for the public to see.
We are not alone in that opinion. Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that police officers cannot shoot someone and have an expectation to remain anonymous. Open government advocate Terry Mutchler, the former head of the Office of Open Records, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “This type of legislation, while very well intended, which I understand coming from a long family of cops, collides with open government. Government must be open and transparent no matter how difficult that may seem at times.”
In urging Wolf to veto last year, state Representative Jordan Harris, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, wrote, “(T)his bill would cast a cloak of secrecy around police officers at a time when the public most demands information. This is not how you rebuild community-police relationships.”
Last year, the bill even received national attention, including from David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”
And now the bill is back. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has created an action for you to contact your state representative to tell them to vote NO on House Bill 27. The action is available at this link.
There is a lot of gloomy talk these days about where we are headed as a country. This bill and others like it that hide information about police practices from the public create an environment in which police are hidden and unaccountable. Be assured that the ACLU of Pennsylvania will do whatever is necessary to stop it.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)
- From Vice: “Why Cops Don’t Get Charged with Crimes When They Lie”
“According to Professor Yaroshefsky, the DA’s implicit concession that its office fails to search out evidence favorable to defendants in police files could leave it vulnerable to a federal lawsuit down the line. But Kline, in a statement, shifted the burden to the police department, saying they all ‘must rely on the department and on other sources to identify appropriate cases for review. We note that the premise of your inquiry appears to be that all internal police discipline is automatically Brady material. The expert you quote does not say that, and we do not believe it is the law.’ Meanwhile, Philly DA Seth Williams is on his way out, and Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights attorney, is hoping to succeed him with a campaign premised on rooting out some of the police misconduct local prosecutors have long countenanced. ‘I’ve seen first hand how dirty they can get,’ Thompson said in his Internal Affairs complaint. ‘Even if they don’t like the tone of your voice they are not God.’”
- From PennLive: “Immigration agents flood Allison Hill in Harrisburg”
“The ICE agents do not partner with police or even notify police of their raids, Olivera said. Instead, police have found out about the series of daily raids, some starting as early as 5 a.m., from residents. ‘Several people have been taken into custody,’ Olivera said. ‘Families have been broken up.’ The organization, Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, or MILPA, is planning a 6 p.m. news conference Monday about the raids, said Harrisburg City Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels. The event will be at the St. Francis Assisi Church in Harrisburg. The raids have caused such fear in certain pockets of Allison Hill that residents are afraid to go to the corner store, Olivera said. Some parents are reluctant to drop their children off at school for fear of getting stopped, said Daniels, who is an immigration attorney. Instead, the children are missing classes. ‘It’s really bad,’ Daniels said. ‘They don’t just stop the person they’re looking for. They hassle everyone who’s around.’”
- From The York Daily Record: “After ICE arrests immigrants, Springettsbury restaurant reopens”
“The four kitchen employees were arrested as part of a recent surge in Immigration & Customs Enforcement activity, said Stephen Converse, the attorney representing them. The men are all in their mid- to late 20s and are from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Converse declined to provide his clients’ names, but he said none has a criminal record. Their only crimes, he said, are being undocumented immigrants.”
- From The Marshall Project: “The Seismic Change in Police Interrogations: A major player in law enforcement says it will no longer use a method linked to false confessions.”
“The technique was first introduced in the 1940s and 50s by polygraph expert John Reid, who intended it to be a modern-era reform — replacing the beatings that police frequently used to elicit information. His tactics soon became dogma in police departments and were considered so successful in garnering confessions that, in its famous 1966 Miranda decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it as a reason why suspects must be warned of their right against self-incrimination.But the advent of DNA evidence and advocacy by the Innocence Project in the 1990s showed that about one-third of exonerations involve confessions, once believed to be an absolute sign of guilt. Academics have theories why someone would falsely confess to a crime, including having a mental disability, being interviewed without a lawyer or parent in the room, or suffering through hours or days in jail before questioning.”
THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.
DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.