Naming Names

Our View: The Police Department Is Right To Identify Officers Involved In Shootings

February 02, 2010

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III made the right decision Friday when his department announced it would resume naming police officers involved in shootings. The yearlong detour from the department's former policy of naming such officers has not served the police or the citizens well, and Mr. Bealefeld's compromise plan to disclose the officers' identities after a 48-hour waiting period addresses concerns about safety and community trust.

Mr. Bealefeld had originally defended the department's new policy by saying it was designed to protect officers from the possibility of retaliation. But the department was unable to provide any evidence that the old policy had put officers at risk; in fact, none of the threats against officers that Mr. Bealefeld mentioned had been related to shootings.

In the meantime, the department did have at least one instance in which the identity of an officer was important in the public's ability to evaluate her actions. Last February, officer Traci McKissick was dispatched to the scene of a family dispute. The encounter ended with the officer disarmed and on the ground wrestling with a 61-year-old man. Other officers arrived and shot the man, Joseph Forrest, who died. Ms. McKissick recovered her weapon and shot him in the thigh.

The accounts of how the incident spiraled out of control differ. Ms. McKissick insisted she had been attacked. Mr. Forrest's family said she was aggressive and unprofessional. One might ordinarily give the benefit of the doubt to the officer, except that Ms. McKissick had been involved in a similar incident four years before. She was chasing a drug suspect and jumped into the car he was driving. She got in an altercation with him and lost control of her gun, which discharged into the back seat.

If Ms. McKissick's name had not been reported by The Sun - in spite of the department's policy - the public might have been much less likely to question Mr. Forrest's death or Ms. McKissick's conduct. (Her version of the story later fell apart in court, forcing prosecutors to drop charges against a man she claimed had prevented her from recovering her gun.)

The policy became even more problematic with Mr. Bealefeld's decision that he would release the names of officers he believed had acted heroically. What was intended as an honorable gesture backfired - any officer who was not named might imagine that the department was implying that he had acted questionably. The department also said it would name officers who were found in internal investigations to have acted improperly. That became the subject of a legal motion in a manslaughter case against an officer. Thomas Sanders, who was accused of shooting an unarmed man in the back in 2008, argued that because he had been named, the department was implying that he was guilty, thus robbing him of the opportunity for a fair trial.

The policy to withhold names was popular with the police union, but it furthered an impression that the police hold themselves above the law. Officers need to weigh the theoretical risk that a named officer might be the subject of threats against the very real risks caused by the climate of mistrust created by a department that citizens feel is looking out for its own first and for them second. At a time when public safety is showing signs of sustained improvement in Baltimore, Mr. Bealefeld was wise to remove this potential impediment to that progress.

Readers respond

Police continue to grant themselves special privileges, imagining they are above public scrutiny and even above the law that they are charged with enforcing.

People have every right to know the names of police officers who, in the line of duty, have shot ordinary citizens. The reasons for such shootings and the circumstances that led to them should also be public knowledge. Transparency should be embraced as a deterrent to abuse of authority by the scofflaws in law enforcement. Why Mr. Bealefeld took so long to capitulate to common sense is mystifying.

Caravan

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