Stop hiding the names of cops who kill unarmed black men

It hurts good cops—and everyone else.

This week, Arizona’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would keep private the identity of any cop who killed a civilian in the line of duty, justly or unjustly. Billed as a “cooling-off period” by its advocates, SB 1445 rests on the fears of reprisal attacks against police officers for actions in the line of duty, such as the two NYPD officers who were murdered as revenge for the death of Eric Garner. Earlier this month, two Ferguson, Mo., officers suffered gunshot wounds during a protest in response to a damning Department of Justice report detailing the history of racism within the Ferguson Police Department.

While these tragedies are certainly ripe for headlines, they are exceedingly rare. In fact, police fatalities on the whole have been trending downward for a decade, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. The crimes that SB 1445 is attempting to prevent are extremely tragic and obviously raise justifiable fears in police departments across the country when they do happen. But hiding the identities of cops with fatalities in their record, even if for a brief time, can only be counterproductive, forcing police departments to paint themselves as unified even with officers who’ve unjustly killed.

The online movements grouped under the #BlackLivesMatter banner and hashtag have spent the better part of the last eight months working to force police departments to release the kind of information the state of Arizona is now looking to hide. For two weeks after the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department refused to release the name of Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Brown last August. That delay gave a clear example of what can happen when online outrage meets a vacuum of information.

By initially hiding the identity of Wilson, the Ferguson PD effectively made their entire staff and force a target for blame (the extensive use of military tactics to dispel peaceful protests also didn’t help). In a well-intentioned but foolhardy move, the hacker collective Anonymous proceeded to release the Social Security number and address of Ferguson’s chief of police and even the information of one former FPD employee Anonymous wrongly believed to be Brown’s killer. Anonymous’ move was a reckless one, but it was also an illustration of the dangers of hiding vital information from the public.

The outrage officers face when their identity is released is not quite the storm of violent energy Arizona seems to fear it is. Last December, the Phoenix Police Department took a week to release the name of Mark Rine, the officer who shot and killed a father of four after mistaking a prescription pill bottle for a firearm. Afterward, the largest threats Rine faced were cries to protest his house, which never actually materialized. Nonetheless, Levi Bolton, the Executive Director of the Arizona Police Association, said it “sent a chill factor up and down our thought process,” encouraging his support for the bill.

It’s a similar sense of paranoia that has led police departments across the country to criticize the Google-owned navigation app Waze for allowing users to report the location of patrol cars and officers, presumably to avoid speed traps. As Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck put it, “it is not always in the public’s best interest to know where police are operating.” Like the Arizona bill, these criticisms are a hypocritical cry for privacy coming from law enforcement that also wants to track our cell phones without telling us. However, it’s also representative of the paranoia police forces clearly have of their own citizenry.

It’s this paranoia that has driven the SB 1445 and could eventually make all police departments seem as suspicious as the Ferguson police turned out to be. Hiding the identity of an officer even if they’ve acted in good faith or self-defense makes the department—or even their profession—look bad. A common argument made by police officers is the “few bad eggs” sentiment, that the rare trigger-happy loose cannons that claim innocent lives are not representative of the rest of the police force.

Which, by all accounts, is true: Over 750,000 sworn officers serve in the U.S. and somehow we aren’t all dead. As former police chief Richard Weinblatt told the National Journal, officers do not consider themselves “judge and jury”: “If an officer is doing it on that basis, then trust me, 99 percent of the officers out there do not want that particular officer in law enforcement because they make all the rest of us look bad, and they are not keeping with their oath of office.”

But part of the reason public sentiment toward police as a whole tends to be hurt by such incidents is because police are not forthcoming enough with information. For example, no one is entirely certain how many innocent people are shot and killed by police officers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics within the Department of Justice stopped trying to keep count last year and private attempts to keep track, like InnocentDown.org, are impressively comprehensive but likely still incomplete. Having no clear idea of how bad this problem actually is already raises skepticism. 

By also hiding officers’ names, even if for a brief period, Arizona will only worsen the degree to which the great mass of good cops will be blamed for the tragic actions of bad cops.

Photo via West Midlands Police/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.