Police say policy on shootings is distracting, offer to reconsider

March 13, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The Baltimore Police Department acknowledged yesterday that its decision to withhold the names of officers who shoot or kill civilians has become a distraction from crime fighting and said it would revisit the policy in an effort to ensure both public disclosure and officer safety.

Mayor Sheila Dixon said Wednesday that she had asked the police to "strike a balance and come up with a revised policy," though yesterday her spokesman would not guarantee that the review would result in changes.

"The issue has taken on a life of its own and is truly a distraction for the department and City Hall," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "We're going to try to find a middle ground between transparency and protecting officers and their families."

After months of informally holding back the identities of officers involved in shootings, police in January said they would end the decades-old practice of releasing names, citing concerns for the safety of officers and their families. Police noted that the FBI and other big-city departments, including those in New York and Atlanta, have similar policies.

They said the increasing availability of personal information on the Internet makes it easier for people to make good on threats of retaliation if the officers' names are known. The city police union supports the policy.

But critics worried that withholding officers' names would endanger an already tenuous relationship between the police and a community besieged by witness intimidation, and some saw it as a scaling back of openness and accountability. Maryland's police agencies and other large cities such as Los Angeles continue to disclose names.

"We are constantly asking our citizens to come forward and to be ready to stand up and identify criminals and to participate in the process," City Councilman James Kraft said at a hearing this week. "When a citizen sees that a police officer is afraid to have his or her name out there because they could be a victim, I think it creates the perception that if the cops are afraid of retaliation, then why should the average citizen help out?"

City police have shot seven people this year, four of them fatally. Shootings have been on the rise in recent years, with 21 police-involved shootings in 2008 and 33 in 2007. The department had 15 or fewer police-involved shootings in each of the five years before that.

The department's public affairs office instituted the policy with Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's blessing. The unwritten policy evolved in recent weeks and eventually provided that all other information about an officer who shot someone - including whether he or she had been involved in a previous shooting - would be released.

But the department's efforts to conceal the officers' names sometimes caused it to withhold other information. In one instance, police redacted not only the name of an officer but also that of a suspect from documents in an effort to prevent reporters from gleaning the officer's name from other records. In another case, an officer's name was withheld while on the next day the department gave him a Citation of Valor for his efforts in a prior shooting.

In February, officials failed to disclose that Officer Traci McKissick had been involved in a struggle with not only 61-year-old Joseph Forrest, who was fatally shot in the incident, but also with a second man who was arrested for stepping on her hand as she reached for her gun. The existence of the second man could help explain why the encounter turned deadly, but disclosing his arrest would have allowed reporters to find court records that included McKissick's name.

Political pressure on the department intensified this week after The Baltimore Sun reported that none of the 23 threats against officers last year were related to police-involved shootings. Bealefeld had cited the statistic in a City Council hearing in defense of the policy.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she has a good relationship with Bealefeld but was not pleased with the way he conducted himself at that hearing.

"I was disappointed that they chose, in a hearing about a significant policy, to spin information," she said. "We expect straight talk."

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who chairs a public safety committee, said yesterday that Bealefeld had misled the public and called for him to resign. Others who initially supported the policy, such as Kraft, said they had changed their minds.

David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland office of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that officers wear name badges, and their identities are provided to suspects in court documents. The release of officers names after a shooting poses no more of a safety hazard than they face on the street every day, Rocah said.

"We thought from the get-go that this policy was both unwise, improper and in fact illegal," Rocah said.

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