Police commanders and officers’ groups don’t understand the rush. The officer’s safety might be at stake, either from a public backlash or people associated with the person who was killed. And the names of civilians who kill someone justifiably are almost never released.
Ohio State officials did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday about why they released the name of university police Officer Alan Horujko on the same day that he confronted and killed knife-wielding assailant Abdul Razak Ali Artan. But the issue is gaining increasing attention, starting with the backlash toward Ferguson, Mo., Officer Darren Wilson after he fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014, and most recently with an attempt by Pennsylvania lawmakers to prohibit police from releasing an officer’s name for 30 days or until an internal investigation was completed. The bill passed both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, but was vetoed last week by Gov. Tom Wolf (D).
“There seem to be indications this was a terrorist event,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police officer union. “There’s still going to be an investigation and this officer is going to be at the epicenter of it. In that context, they should be mindful not only of his due process rights but also his personal safety. Generally speaking, it is better to wait [to release the name] until you’re certain that you’re in control of the situation. Knowing what you want to know about the possibility of danger to him or his family.”
And how long would that take? “There’s no hard and fast rule,” Pasco said. “In cases like this one, law enforcement moves at a rapid pace. Probably only a matter of days. But not one day.”
Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, noted that after Officer Wilson’s name and address were released in the Ferguson case, the officer and his family were harassed and had to move. “If the use of force is controversial,” Johnson said, “that can lead to death threats against an officer and a family. There has to be some recognition of that on the part of police agency administrators.”
Other police supporters have noted that the trauma involved for an officer is significant: dealing with the psychological fallout of killing someone, becoming the focus of a criminal investigation, taking a desk job for months and anxiously waiting for a decision on whether charges will be filed, then undergoing a second, internal investigation to determine if every decision and action was proper. Add to that the notoriety of having one’s name and picture broadcast worldwide, and even under heroic circumstances it can ramp up the pressure on what is typically a patrol cop with no experience in the limelight.
Pennsylvania’s police unions supported the recent bill that would have barred any public officials from releasing the name of an officer involved in a fatal shooting of a civilian for 30 days. The existing law left that decision up to local jurisdictions, and then-Philadelphia police Chief Charles Ramsey had adopted a policy of releasing the officers’ names within 72 hours, if there were no credible threats to officers.
“We are the protectors of our protectors,” said one of the bill’s supporters, Rep. Dominic Costa (D) of Pittsburgh. The bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state legislature in October.
But the governor vetoed it last Monday. “While I am deeply concerned for the safety of the Commonwealth’s police officers,” Gov. Wolf wrote, “government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government, and as such, I cannot sign into law a policy that will enshrine the withholding of information in the public interest.”
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, acknowledged Tuesday that “police officers put themselves at risk, and we want them to be safe. But we have ways to protect them if we have to.” The ACLU lobbied against the bill, and Hoover said that “the public needs to have trust in their police departments. In order to build trust, transparency needs to be the rule, not the exception. That includes identifying officers when they’ve used force against someone. It works both ways. An officer may have done everything right and may be commended. But if they’ve done something wrong, there needs to be public accountability. Police departments build distrust when they withhold information.”
Some departments have policies on when to release officers’ names, some don’t. After a fatal police shooting in Fairfax County, Va., in 2013, the Fairfax police refused to release the name of the officer or the circumstances of the slaying for more than a year, because its policy was to wait until a decision was made on charges, and none had been made. When the information was finally released in 2015, with still no decision on charges, the eventual public uproar led to the formation of a police review commission. In June 2016 Fairfax County supervisors voted to require the release of an officer’s name within 10 days unless the police chief determines that doing so would pose a significant risk.
The move wasn’t unanimous. “There are a lot of crazy people out there,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R), who voted against the requirement after listing several recent incidents in which county police officers were threatened with violence.
“We recognize we live in a democracy,” said Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations, which bills itself as the largest trade association in the United States representing active duty law enforcement officers. “There’s a legitimate interest in knowing which officers have used deadly force,” Johnson said, and he said the release of a name should come “as soon as possible, consistent with the safety of the officer, his colleagues and his family. I think that what happened at Ohio State, the administration said this is great, we want the public to know what one of our officers did, he did a great job of keeping students safe. Realistically, if this had been a controversial shooting, they would not have been as quick to release the name.”