- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For 17 months after an officer responding to a domestic call fatally shot a man standing in the doorway of his home, police in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, only provided family members and the public with a bare-bones account of the shooting, declining to even identify the officer involved.

Under pressure from a civil lawsuit, a U.S. senator and reporters, Fairfax County officials in January grudgingly released 11,000 pages of material related to the Aug. 29, 2013, shooting of 46-year-old John Geer. This week the now-fired officer was indicted on murder charges.

In an attempt to rebuild strained public trust ahead of the indictment, the police department last week also released a database of information on all departmental shootings dating back a decade. But one thing was still missing from the majority of the cases: the names of the officers involved.

Police departments across the country are facing a crisis in confidence following high-profile deadly use-of-force cases, starting especially with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And amid the calls for better accountability and transparency, they are weighing the pros and cons of releasing the names of officers who use deadly force.

“You’ve got to be transparent to maintain the trust of your community,” said Drew Tracy, president of the Critical Incident Review Group, which has advised police departments on handling incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

Mr. Tracy, a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police officer, recommends departments adopt a 48-hour policy for the release of the names of both officers and the citizens killed. That gives time for officers to inform their families and to arrange for temporary, secure accommodations if there is a possibility of threats or retaliation.

“This information is going to get out one way or another, so it is best for the department to provide it from their vantage point,” he said. “Then there is no question of anyone hiding anything.”

But concerns about the safety of officers, many of whom are cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in deadly-use-of-force investigations, make others question whether releasing names at all is a sound practice.

“What’s important to consider are the officers’ safety and the officers’ due process rights, which are no different than any other citizens,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. “These things stigmatize an officer forever.”

In Ferguson, police initially declined to release the name of the officer who fatally shot Brown. When the department did eventually release Officer Darren Wilson’s name, he fled his home and went into hiding.

Officer Wilson was never charged with a crime in connection to the shooting, including in a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department of Eric H. Holder Jr. But he left the department, and police supporters say the threats and harassment he endured are indicative of what they fear can happen to an officer who is publicly identified.

Those concerns led Arizona lawmakers this year to propose legislation that would shield officers’ identities from public release for 60 days after departmental shootings. The legislation, which was vetoed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in March, drew sharp rebuke from civil rights advocates.

“When agencies and officers use these powers, the public must be informed. These powers are much more likely to be abused when their use is concealed from the community,” the ACLU of Arizona wrote in a letter urging Mr. Ducey to veto the bill.

In a 2014 California Supreme Court ruling, judges acknowledged local departments can only withhold the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings if there is specific evidence to show that disclosing the name of an officer would pose a safety threat.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said the national conversation about police transparency has led the county to re-examine its own policies. He said an internal policy change in 2012 now allows for officers’ names to eventually be released after the conclusion of a criminal investigation.

Before that, names were not released, and Chief Roessler said last week’s data release didn’t retroactively identify officers involved in shootings before 2012 because he wanted to remain committed to the policy in place at the time.

“The officers are essentially victims. We’d not normally release victims’ names, but there is a higher level of accountability for police officers,” said Chief Roessler, noting the formation this year of an ad hoc commission to review his department’s policies and practices. “We are open to evolving. This is one of many efforts we are trying to be more open and transparent.”

The ACLU of Virginia, which wants the Fairfax department to make more changes such as body-worn cameras and an independent civilian review board, thinks the names of officers should be included on incident reports that can be obtained by the public.

“We believe that police should operate in a culture of transparency and accountability that values the release of information to the public as soon as it is practicable to do so,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga.

When Geer’s surviving family members sued the department over his death, they filed a lawsuit against the department and three then-unnamed officers because so little was known.

“How do [you] even begin to start collecting information if you don’t know if the officer still works for the department, or does he have a past history of abuse?” said Mike Curtis, founder of Northern Virginia Cop Block, a group that advocates for police transparency.

The family settled the lawsuit against the department for $2.95 million in April, by which time the department had identified Adam Torres as the officer who fired the fatal shots.

On Monday Mr. Torres was indicted on a second-degree murder charge in Geer’s death; he had been fired at the end of July.

For those departments that do release officers’ names as part of standard procedure, there is no hard-and-fast rule on how long to wait before identifying the involved officer.

“Especially in a use-of-force case in the current political environment, regarding officer safety, there are real and legitimate concerns about the safety of officers if we put out information too quickly,” said Bill Johnson, president of the National Association of Police Organizations.

President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing takes no side on the issue of identifying involved officers, but notes that whatever policy a department has on use of force should firmly outline what type of information will be released about a scenario and a timeline for release.

“There is no one size fits all to it,” Mr. Pasco said. “There are probably as many policies as there are departments.”

Some departments have policies that dictate officers will be identified within a short period of time. The Philadelphia Police Department announced in July it would begin releasing officers’ names within 72 hours of a shooting. The department still reserves the ability to withhold names in cases where a threat has been made against the officer or family members.

Many Virginia police departments have policies, including Fairfax’s revised protocols, indicating they will release the name of an officer only after prosecutors finish their investigation to determine whether use of force was justified.

For other departments, union contracts limit what information can be released. The Baltimore County Police Department will release only the last name of an officer as well as the officer’s rank, assignment and length of service, according to the Baltimore Sun.

In the District, the Metropolitan Police Department does not have a specific policy related to the release of officers’ names — relying instead on a general order that bans the department from releasing “information concerning victims, witnesses or cooperating individuals, or any information that could reasonably be used to identify them, endanger their lives or physical safety.”

“There may be circumstances where the information would be released by the department, but that would be on a case-by-case basis,” MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said.

What circumstances the department would consider for release are unclear.

In a response this year to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Washington Times, the department cited privacy laws and declined to release the name of a single officer involved in any departmental shooting dating back to 2007.

Regardless of a department’s policies, however, any police officer charged with a crime over a deadly-force incident will have his name routinely become public record, as every other criminal defendant does.

Resistance by police departments to release the names of officers is not just limited to fatal encounters.

After the Boston Police Department came under fire last year for withholding the names of five officers caught driving drunk, it revised its policy so that the names of any officer who was arrested would be released, according to The Boston Globe.

While Mr. Tracy said many of the departments looking to establish more transparent protocols are acting on their own, Mr. Pasco believes much of the pressure is coming from politicians reacting to public outcry.

“Police chiefs are not free agents,” he said. “Sometimes they yield more to public pressure than to public sense.”

And so the balancing act of maintaining officer safety with police accountability remains a work in progress.

“Absolutely the public has a right to know and will know, but it’s also the responsibility of the department to protect its community, including its own,” Mr. Johnson said.

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