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New plan to withhold names in police shootings could lead to further delays

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Law enforcement unions are revising their proposal to temporarily withhold the names of officers involved in shootings, but the change could mean a longer wait than their initial 90-day proposal.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa City, said he would prefer the names of officers who fire their weapons be withheld until after the county attorney in the jurisdiction where the shooting took place has determined if the use of deadly force was justified.

The Arizona Police Association and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association have approached Smith as a potential sponsor for the measure.

The county attorney only makes such a determination after the results of a police investigation and report on an officer-involved shooting are transferred to the county. The process also involves a recommendation from a panel at the county attorney’s office,  said Jerry Cobb, spokesman for Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

In Maricopa County, a determination of whether use of deadly force is justified is typically made within six months, Cobb said.

In some cases, that determination can take years.

“The general rule of thumb that we’ve publicly said is it takes within six months [to complete a determination]. Sometimes it can be sooner, sometimes it can be longer,” Cobb said.

One incident in 2012, when an officer fired their weapon, was still pending review as of Dec. 9, and two incidents from 2013 are still awaiting a determination as well, according to records provided by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Another 15 incidents in 2014 were awaiting Montgomery’s review as of Dec. 9.

The public shouldn’t have to wait over two years to learn the name of an officer who fired his or her weapon, but allowing the investigation to run its course prior to releasing an officer’s name is fairer than implementing an arbitrary 90-day wait, Smith said.

He said he believes high-profile cases would be expedited by the police and county attorneys given the public demand for information, and may take less time than the initial 90 days proposed by the unions.

“If they are high-intensity cases, you will not see, by sheer public pressure, a feet-dragging of months-on-end of this,” Smith said Thursday. “When you have a situation like a Ferguson, it is clear people want to know, and they want answers. And they don’t want those in a year. They want those as soon as possible.”

Smith said he’s yet to agree to sponsor the bill, but will continue working with the unions to explore their idea. He is contacting county attorneys from across the state to get feedback on the investigation process, he said.

“I think the goal of what we’re trying to do is, rather than stipulate an exact period, I think it’s just proper upon when investigations are complete,” Smith said.

Michael Williams, a lobbyist for the Arizona Police Association and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said language is being drafted to reflect Smith’s desired changes.

Union officials cited protests and high tensions following deadly police incidents in Ferguson, Mo. and New York as causes for concern. The officer’s safety and the safety of an officer’s family is paramount, Williams said.

Neither union officials nor Williams could point to an instance when an officer in Arizona involved in a fatal shooting was harmed as retaliation. But Smith said it’s not fair for officers to be convicted in the court of public opinion before an investigation is finished and all relevant information is made available.

Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said the change makes a bad idea even worse.

“What happens is, as a matter of reality, the names would be released long after people would have forgotten about these incidents,” Barr said. “And as the events of this summer show, transparency is crucial when these tragedies occur.”

 

 

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