Saying it’s a matter of officer safety, the state House gave preliminary approval Tuesday to require police departments to shield the names of officers involved in shootings.
The voice vote on SB 1445 came after proponents agreed to shorten the period of confidentiality to just 60 days. That is 30 days less than what Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, got the Senate to approve.
SB 1445 is mandatory. The only way the public can find out in that period who killed someone else is if the officer is arrested, a criminal investigation is complete or the officer consents to the release in writing.
And if the officer is killed in a shootout, the police department can — but is not required to — release the name earlier than 60 days.
It does permit the public to request the disciplinary record of any officer who has been involved in a shooting without waiting for 60 days. But the legislation specifies that the only way such information could be released is there is no way to actually identify the officer.
“What we’re doing is trying to protect the police officer and his family, and even his neighbors from having their tranquility molested,” said Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City.
That is in line with the arguments Smith presented when he introduced the measure earlier this year. He cited two incidents in which he said officers involved in shootings were threatened after being publicly indentified.
Smith said the delay would give an officer a chance to get into what he said would be a kind of “witness protection program” to ensure the safety of that person and his or her family.
And Steve Henry, the chief deputy sheriff in Pinal County, said the legislation would provide a “cooling-off period” after what might be a controversial shooting.
But Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said the secrecy is not only inappropriate but also bad public policy.
“I believe a police officer’s decision to shoot or otherwise harm a civilian is one of the ultimate expressions of government power,” he argued Tuesday.
“With that we should demand the highest levels of transparency and accountability,” Mendez continued. “And we should not keep officers’ names hidden from the public.”
Borrelli was unconvinced.
“As far as public trust in the police, I think that’s irrelevant to what this bill actually does,” he said. Borrelli said the legislation is about protecting the officer and his or her family.
But Mendez said there is a public purpose to be served by identifying the officer.
“What options would the public have as recourse against an abusive officer whose identity is secret?” he asked Borrelli. “Would you not regard knowing the police officer’s identity is one of the strongest checks we have on law enforcement agencies?”
“I don’t see how the name of the police officer is relevant,” Borrelli responded. “How did the poet say it: A rose of a different name is still a rose.”
Anyway, he said, the legislation does not preclude release of other information, including the officer’s background, training and how many years he or she has served.
“Only the name would be redacted from that,” Borrelli said, at least for the 60 days.
In a statement issued after Tuesday’s vote, the American Civil Liberties Union said SB 1445 “threatens to further erode trust between law enforcement and communities by undermining the public’s ability to hold officers and agencies accountable for abusive behavior.”
A final roll-call vote is scheduled for Wednesday. If approved, the bill will go back to the Senate to review the changes made in the House on Tuesday.