Amid increased scrutiny over police-involved shootings across the country, Arizona lawmakers are poised to pass a bill that would keep secret the names of officers who use deadly force for 60 days.
Critics call Senate Bill 1445 an attack on government transparency at a time when American police departments are trying to earn the public’s trust after a series of controversial shootings.
The bill would prevent law enforcement agencies statewide from releasing the names of police officers "involved in a use of deadly physical force incident that results in death or serious physical injury" for 60 days.
This includes when the officer is killed; the next of kin or department can agree to release the name earlier in those cases. An officer's disciplinary history could also be released, but identifying information would be redacted. The name would also be released if an officer is charged.
"People cannot believe in what they are not permitted to observe," said attorney David Bodney, who specializes in First Amendment and public records law. "When a law enforcement officer is involved in a deadly force incident, the trust deficit only grows deeper."
"You’re actually increasing tension between the community and the police that serve them."
"This is about protecting the welfare of an officer who is not a suspect," said Levi Bolton, a retired Phoenix police officer and executive director of the Arizona Police Association, which backed the bill. He said the delay would mean the name is released when investigators have a clearer picture of what occurred.
"You still get the 'when,' the 'where' and the 'how' if we know it — you just don’t get the 'who,'" Bolton said.
The bill passed in the Arizona House of Representatives on Wednesday with a 44-13 vote, and is expected to go back to the Senate this week. An earlier version of the bill with a longer restriction of 90 days already sailed through the Senate with a 23-6 vote in February.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would have to sign the bill into law. His office did not respond to a request for comment. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican, did not return calls this week.
The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the bill as a step backwards for the state. Keeping an officer’s name secret would make it easier to cover up errors or abuse, said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. Current law allows police to withhold records over safety concerns in some circumstances. Officers' home addresses don't have to be disclosed.
"At a time when the entire country is raising legitimate questions about why so many black men are dying at the hands of police, the state of Arizona is moving in the opposite direction and becoming less transparent," she said. "It’s certainly not going to improve police-community relations."
Smith sponsored the bill after a pair of controversial police shootings in Arizona.
After former Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia released the name of the police officer who fatally shot Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man, in December, there were fears that protesters would march on the officer’s home. None ever did so, but Bolton said it "sent a chill factor up and down our thought process.”
In Pinal County, sheriff’s officials said a deputy received threats after video appeared to show a suspect with his hands up shortly before the deputy fatally shot him in January of 2014. The deputy’s home was placed under 24-hour guard for a time, Pinal County sheriff's Chief Deputy Steve Henry told a state senate committee in February.
"For us, if we would have been able to keep that deputy's official photograph and official name out of the news media for a certain amount of time, for at least for a cooling-off period, then perhaps some of this negative publicity would have been mitigated," Henry said.
"People cannot believe in what they are not permitted to observe"
Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson went into hiding after he shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in August, sparking nationwide protests. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson, but he later resigned.
State Rep. Reginald Bolding, a Democrat who represents the Phoenix area, said the proposed law will increase skepticism of the police.
"This is being packaged as a cooling-off period. What many people in the community believe is this could build a covering-up period," Bolding said. "You’re actually increasing tension between the community and the police that serve them."
The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes the bill because it takes control away from department heads, a representative for the group said.
Channel Powe, a community advocate in Phoenix, said her group plans to deliver a petition against the bill to the governor this week.
"You have a community with a history of mistrust of police, and now we want to hide our identity from you when we get into a situation where someone loses their life," she said. "There’s zero accountability."