In the open

Our view: Baltimore police chief should reverse his decision to withhold the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings

it's a matter of public accountability

January 08, 2009

The Baltimore police will no longer release the names of officers who kill or injure people while in the line of duty. They say it's to protect them from harassment or worse. But the police chief hasn't made the case that officers involved in shootings require anonymity. There's no more fundamental relationship between government and its citizens than the relationship between a community and its police force. Anyone involved in a shooting or other possible crime in Baltimore is identified by police, and city officers shouldn't be excluded from this practice.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III can't expect the community to support this change in policy, especially when he isn't willing to discuss or defend it. He had a spokesman speak for him. And yet Mr. Bealefeld has been among the city's most vocal advocates of the community partnering with police in the fight against crime. He hasn't been shy about saying so or imploring residents to do their part.

A visibly angry Bealefeld urged residents of Northeast Baltimore to step up when homicide detectives were working overtime to find the killers of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.: "I want to be flooded with phone calls about every dog fight and pot smoker in the neighborhood." He emphasized the relationship between police and community last summer while touting a new police training facility housed in a former school. "We're here. We're your partners," Mr. Bealefeld said.

But cooperation - and trust - must go hand in hand. Police-involved shootings are among the most sensitive cases investigated in the city because they are the ultimate example of use of force by an officer. Officers are entrusted to use their department-issued weapon with care and to fire them only in self-defense or to stop a suspected violent felon who poses a threat to others.

Withholding the names of officers involved in shootings invites the perception that the department has something to hide. That's why openness is the best policy. A police spokesman says this change in policy aims to protect police who may be retaliated against or targeted as a result. But neither Mr. Bealefeld nor his agency has provided credible examples that this is in fact a problem. Police-involved shootings have increased since 2006, when there were 15 cases; they deserve the same public scrutiny as any other possible crime.

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