Arizona lawmakers thought they were doing police a favor when they passed a measure that would keep secret for two months the name of any officer involved in an on-duty shooting.
But police chiefs say the proposal would serve only to hamper their ability to manage complex police-community relations, and they are asking the governor to veto the measure. Civil-rights groups and community activists also want to see the bill rejected, saying that adding another layer of secrecy will only deepen the divide between law enforcement and some segments of the public, especially in minority communities.
“There’s already laws that protect officers, so there is no need for any additional laws,” Warren Stewart Jr., pastor at the Church of the Remnant in heavily minority south Phoenix, said Friday.
Police unions support the measure that is on Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk, calling it a common-sense idea based strictly on safety.
The bill does not preclude “the community’s right and desire to know what their police department is doing,” said Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
The bill was prompted by police use-of-force incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City that drew intense criticism to the officers involved. Republicans who sponsored Senate Bill 1445 said they simply wanted a time-out to allow for investigations to proceed.
“The simple fact remains that we live in a world where misinformation can put everybody in jeopardy, especially police officers,” state Sen. John Kavanagh said this week. “And until we get those facts straight, we need to shield those cops and their families from being assassinated by lunatics or political zealots.”
State legislatures across the nation have been looking at police-transparency laws since the Aug. 8 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, whose name was released a week after the incident. Several states are considering requiring police to wear body cameras or mandating that shooting investigations be done by outside agencies.
But Arizona is apparently the only state looking at tightening up rules for releasing the names of officers, according to Ezekiel Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Currently, Arizona public-records laws require the release of an officer’s name as soon as possible, unless the agency cites specific reasons for a temporary delay. In practice, agencies typically release the name within several days but can hold off indefinitely if the officer’s safety is in jeopardy.
Proponents of the Arizona legislation cited the release of officers’ names following separate shootings last year as particularly worrisome. One involved a Phoenix officer who shot and killed a mentally ill woman, the other a Pinal County deputy sheriff who shot and killed a suspect following a chase.
Both shootings triggered outrage but later were ruled justified.
Clure said the release of the Phoenix officer’s name a week after the shooting led critics to threaten to protest at the officer’s home.
“Keep in mind what the law does allow. Everybody’s going to be told what happened, where it happened, how it happened, why it happened,” Clure said. “They’re going to be given the officer’s work history. They’re going to be given the officer’s discipline history to the extent that it doesn’t expose the officer’s identity.”
But Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor, writing to Ducey in his role as president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said a drafting error in the law could keep all those records secret.
Indeed, that’s also the view of a lawyer for Arizona’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, who urged Ducey to veto the measure as unnecessary and problematic.
Republic attorney David Bodney said the last-minute provision detailing what could be released would actually shield any officer’s name in any disciplinary report or action forever.
“Simply put, this provision represents either a colossal drafting error or a surreptitious effort to gut the transparency of the law enforcement disciplinary process,” Bodney wrote.
The sponsor of the bill, Republican state Sen. Steve Smith, said Bodney is reading the statute incorrectly.
“That person is categorically wrong either in his interpretation of that language, or he’s completely falsifying what that bill actually says,” Smith said. He promised to work to change the law if the bill is signed and if the newspaper and the police chiefs’ group are correct about their criticisms.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor was still reviewing the legislation, which passed the Senate and House with bipartisan support. The governor has until Monday to sign or veto it.