Police chief defends withholding names of officers who shoot, kill civilians

January 28, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is defending a new policy not to name police officers who shoot or kill civilians, saying in a letter to City Council members that the change is a safeguard to prevent retaliation and harassment.

Police will release the rank, tenure and assignment of the officer immediately after an incident, he wrote in a letter to City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young that was obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The department will wait until after an internal investigation has been completed to decide whether to release the name of an officer who acted justifiably, though Bealefeld said the department will always release the officer's name and the disciplinary actions taken if a shooting is determined not to be justified.

"With the increasing amount of personal information on any individual available through the Internet, we must take a measured approach in balancing the public's right to know against personal security," Bealefeld wrote, citing "home addresses, satellite photographs, credit reports and voting and academic records."

City and state elected leaders, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the policy. Bealefeld's letter comes three weeks after Rawlings-Blake and Young wrote to him expressing concerns that it could "undermine the hard-earned, sacred trust between our police officers and the public they serve."

Young, who chairs the council's public safety committee, plans to hold a public hearing on the issue.

But the police union backs the plan, and city officials say it follows the practices of the FBI and police departments in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Atlanta. Baltimore police said they investigated 23 threats against police officers in 2008, though it was unclear how many related to police shootings.

Officials say the policy is informal and has been adopted by the department's public affairs office.

This year, Baltimore police have shot five people - two fatally - including a knife-wielding man who stabbed his pregnant ex-girlfriend and a man who was carrying an assault rifle. In recent years, the number of people shot by police has been as low as 11, in 2004, and as high as 31, in 2007. Last year, city police shot 21 people.

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