A matter of the public record

Our view: Police lack credible evidence to justify policy on officer shootings

March 11, 2009

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's decision to withhold the names of police officers who shoot citizens is bad public policy, and the city's top cop should admit he made a mistake and rescind it. Mr. Bealefeld justified his decision as a matter of protecting officers from potential harassment and retaliation and told the City Council that 23 threats had been made against officers last year.

But it turns out, according to department information requested by The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton, that none of the threats considered "significant" by the department in the past two years had anything to do with a police-involved shooting. And of the nine threats classified as "significant," most took place during arrests, the newspaper reported. Mr. Bealefeld's policy is even squishier than we originally believed.

In a department with 3,000 officers who make thousands of arrests a year, fewer than two dozen threats doesn't rate as cause for alarm or compelling evidence to keep from the public a most basic fact: the identity of a police officer who kills or wounds a citizen.

Mr. Bealefeld has done an impressive job deploying and motivating his troops since he took the job in the summer of 2007, and the significant improvement in the number of murders in Baltimore is testament to his leadership. But this policy on police-involved shootings reinforces a them-versus-us attitude that will undermine the department's crime-fighting, cooperation with citizens, and the chief's credibility.

When a citizen shoots someone, his or her name is included in the police report, and that account is as basic a public record as government creates. It is open for citizen review, and when the alleged shooter happens to be a sworn member of the police force, no aspect of the report should be whited out simply because the police commissioner says so.

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