By Crystle Craig, Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Pay attention, because Pennsylvania lawmakers are on a path to decimating already delicate police-community relations. House Bill 1538 and Senate Bill 1061 mean to take decision-making power from local leadership, blanket law enforcement in a veil of secrecy, and keep the public ignorant to the actions of those who serve it.
Transparency is undeniably vital to any government, such as ours, that wishes to hold the trust and consent of its people. Yet, Pennsylvania is set to veil itself in secrecy in an attempt to shield its law enforcement officers from public accountability. In a time when police chiefs, governors and congressman across the country are calling to open the practices of police to public scrutiny, Pennsylvania’s bills take a tragic leap in the wrong direction.
Pennsylvania House Bill 1538 and Senate Bill 1061 would prohibit local leadership from identifying officers involved in use of force incidents against the people. Police chiefs, district attorneys, and mayors would be barred from disclosing such information until the completion of an official investigation. Under this language, the public could be left waiting virtually into perpetuity. If the investigation is prolonged for years, we would not know the names of potentially dangerous officers for years. If the investigation never closes, as some may be wont to do, the information could never be released. In other words, there is no limit upon the time under which dissemination may be prohibited. And Senate Bill 1061 goes even further by imposing criminal punishment against local leaders who decide to identify their officers, regardless of whether the disclosure was done for the public good and safety.
But the absence of logic is most troubling. In fact, nothing but baseless assumptions abound in these bills. Our lawmakers assume that Pennsylvanians are unreasonable and unstable. They imply that Pennsylvanians just cannot be trusted to do the right thing, as if we will only use disclosure for nefarious purposes rather than for accountability, healing, and peace of mind. In the eyes of our lawmakers, we can do the right thing when electing them, but we are just too emotionally unstable when seeking truth and justice. They assume this without being able to point to any known instances of officers being targeted after the disclosure of identifying information under Freedom of Information Act/ Right to Know Requests or at the discretion of local leadership.
Our lawmakers assume that our police chiefs, district attorneys, and mayors cannot act in the best interests of their officers and communities. Currently, local leadership has the ability to judge the circumstances within the community. They have the discretion to either disseminate information for the public good or to withhold it if the release of such information would put officers or public safety in jeopardy. But, our lawmakers want to ignore the fact that local leadership is in the best position to make judgment calls for their communities, not the detached politicians at the Capitol. They would substitute their inexperience and assumptions for the reasoned judgment of the local leadership who make decisions in consideration of the immediate realities of the local environment.
Evidently, our lawmakers have faith in no one but themselves.
But we must not forget that all departments of government, law enforcement especially, are accountable to the people. The trust of the people must be earned, not taken for granted. That requires transparency. Transparency encourages trust, serving as a vital check against power prone to corruption. Police power certainly is not immune to corruption, but “sunlight” acts as the best disinfectant for deterring and responding to corruption within any government agency. Police chiefs know this. Mayors know this. Governors understand it. And the people demand it.
Achieving a lawful police force is a never-ending task. A government of checks and balances is not enough without transparency, particularly within law enforcement. Police officers are given the unique power to detain and use force against the people, but, when doing so, they must adhere to the rules of law. The people must be able to know if the checks and balances are functioning; the people must know who can and cannot carry-out the demanding responsibility of upholding our laws so that good officers may be praised and the bad officers discarded. As John Adams wrote centuries ago, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.” This wisdom is wholly applicable to law enforcement today.
Transparency and public awareness are crucially important forces for maintaining fair, humane and lawful police forces. Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Ferguson all stand as undeniable parables to this end. Let us not forget their lessons as Pennsylvania lawmakers seem to have done with these “secret police” bills; let us speak up and against the veil of secrecy.
Crystle Craig is the 2015-16 Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow and a 2015 graduate of the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle.