Police to name officers involved in shootings

48-hour delay added in return to former policy

January 30, 2010|By By Justin Fenton | The Baltimore Sun

Reversing a controversial decision made last year, city police say they will reinstate the decades-long policy of releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, this time opting for a 48-hour window that allows police to put safeguards in place for the officer.

The move comes 10 months after Mayor Sheila Dixon asked Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to rethink the policy of withholding the officers' names. Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said Bealefeld consulted with various members of the community and that the change represents a compromise.

"Our concern throughout this entire time has been the personal safety considerations of officers and their families," Guglielmi said. "But we have an obligation as a public safety agency to balance transparency, and we feel 48 hours would give us ample time to put things in place for the officer while being transparent enough for the public."

Policies vary across the country, but the Police Department's new practice puts it back in line with other local agencies. Last month, the police chief in St. Louis moved to reverse his department's policy and begin releasing names. Agencies in New York City and Philadelphia do not release them.

"There has been, and unfortunately remains, a great deal of mistrust of the Police Department, and policies like this did nothing to combat that," said David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who questioned the legality of withholding officers' names. "Combating that is necessary not only for the people of Baltimore, but for the Baltimore Police Department to be effective in its job. This was wrong and unjustified on so many levels."

Incoming Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who criticized last year's policy change and will take office next week, was not consulted about the decision, according to an aide, but called it a "change that ensures more transparency while protecting officer safety."

The city police union said Friday it was not notified that a change was looming and questioned the decision and its timing.

"The naming of a police officer doesn't mean you're any more or less transparent," said Robert F. Cherry, president of the union. "Can you name one police-involved shooting since we initiated this policy change that has created any type of distrust between police and the community? Why change now?"

The initial policy change, which was confirmed by the department after inquiries from The Baltimore Sun in January 2009, was met with criticism. Rawlings-Blake and Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's public safety committee, wrote in a letter that they were frustrated that they had not been informed of the decision and expressed concerns that it could "undermine the hard-earned, sacred trust between our police officers and the public they serve."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, the director of the community relations commission and the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were among those that spoke out. The Baltimore Sun has pending litigation against the Police Department that seeks, among other things, to compel release of the names and investigative files from closed shooting investigations.

But the policy of withholding names also had supporters, with some City Council members saying that they trusted the department's judgment.

Cherry, of the police union, noted that police shootings often go through a more rigorous investigative process than the average crime and that prosecutors are the ultimate check on whether an officer's actions were justified. Officer Tommy Sanders is awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter, accused of shooting an unarmed man in the back in January 2008.

Bealefeld sought community input late last year, asking neighborhood leaders to poll residents. Melissa Techentin, who is president of the Southeast District police community relations council, said "the vast majority" of the people she spoke with were "extremely supportive" of the department withholding names.

"They believed that if an officer was neglectful, that information would be brought out in a trial," she said.

For Janet Robertson, whose nephew Byron Matthews was shot and killed by police Dec. 11, 2009, such policies raised questions about whether she could trust police not to look out for their own during the investigation. Police say Matthews, 20, a high school graduate who had no criminal record, pulled a gun on officers and had drugs in his possession.

"The policy was about protecting the officer, but what about us and our rights?" Robertson said Friday. "They want to keep everything hush-hush, but they never had no retaliation toward police. People don't do that."

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