In policy change, city police will not identify officers who kill, injure

January 07, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,

Baltimore police will no longer release the names of officers who kill or injure people, changing a long-standing practice that the department believes put officers at risk.

The decision is prompting criticism from several Baltimore leaders, who said withholding officers' names will only endanger an already tenuous relationship between the police and the community. Baltimore police shot 21 people last year, 13 of them fatally - the same number killed by police in 2007, when 31 people were shot. Those numbers are up from 2006, when 15 were shot and five killed.

"If we're ever going to get to a point where the community trusts the police, we need to have some transparency and full disclosure about what's happening," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a West Baltimore Democrat who is a public defender.

The Police Department is asking residents to become more engaged in their neighborhoods and to work with police to solve crimes and overcome a "Stop Snitching" culture. Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said he wouldn't want police to give out information that endangers officers, but he said the new policy "doesn't help" improve community relations.

"We've got to find more and better ways to bring the community and police together," he said. "This may not sit too well with many of us."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III declined to comment on the change, saying he left the decision to new department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The new policy mirrors those of some other departments and is designed to protect officers from retaliation, Guglielmi said.

A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said she will not interfere with the department's decision.

Regionally and across the country, police agencies differ in their disclosure of police-involved shootings; some release the names within hours and others withhold the information altogether.

The police union applauded the policy change. Robert F. Cherry, president of the Baltimore police union and a former homicide detective, said the department vigorously investigates shootings that involve officers.

"If anything, the investigation is more intensive than for the average citizen," Cherry said. "The only thing the department is doing differently is choosing not to release their name. ... I'm surprised we haven't gone to this earlier."

Talk of the change surfaced nearly a year ago in February, but officials in the mayor's office said they had not been briefed and promised the issue would be thoroughly vetted. Over the summer, police informally stopped releasing names of officers involved in shootings.

Six people were shot by officers during that span, and only one officer was identified. Four victims were identified.

Among the last officers whose names were released was Officer Tommy Sanders, who has since been indicted on manslaughter charges in connection with the death of Edward Lamont Hunt at a Northeast Baltimore shopping center. Hunt was shot several times in the back after he attempted to flee. Sanders, 38, is scheduled to go to trial next month.

Guglielmi, who joined the department last month after a stint with the federal Office of the Special Counsel, said the change is not a departmentwide rule but a policy of the public affairs office, which disseminates information.

Guglielmi said the department will release the names of officers only if they are found through an internal investigation to have erred - though that could require a policy change as well, since the department currently does not notify the public about the results of internal investigations.

"After doing a couple ride-alongs [with officers], I sincerely believe there are some security implications for identifying officers unless they were found in the wrong," he said.

Guglielmi cited backlash against Officer Salvatore Rivieri, the Inner Harbor patrol officer who was videotaped berating a teenage skateboader. The video was posted on YouTube and appeared on national television, and police said Rivieri has received death threats at his home.

But Doug Ward, director of the division of public safety leadership for the Johns Hopkins University and a former state trooper, said the Rivieri case is a perfect example of the public's right to know about a potential problem officer. He said police must provide a certain amount of transparency for the public to trust that their internal investigative process is responsible.

"I understand that they're trying to protect their own and that kind of thing, but I'm not sure that's good public policy," Ward said.

A spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said last year that she had concerns about the prospect of withholding officers' names and "would not do anything to jeopardize the progress that we have made with our relationship with the community." The spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, said yesterday that Jessamy's position had not changed.

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