Gov. Tom Wolf vetoes police ID bill

Governor Tom Wolf

A bill designed to protect the identity of law enforcement officers who use their weapons while on duty, supported by a Republican majority, was vetoed Monday by Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf explained that while he is concerned about Pennsylvania police officers, he said he thought the bill did not favor transparency. House Bill 1538, “Protection for Law Enforcement,” was introduced by Philadelphia Republican Rep. Martina White.

Following Wolf’s veto, White wrote on her Facebook page, “I’ve just received word that Gov. Wolf has vetoed my legislation to protect police officers and their families when the officer is involved in a discharge of his or her firearm or other use of force.”

White made her intentions clear that she would reintroduce the legislation when the new term opens in January.

“I wish the governor had recognized the importance of protecting police officers and their families,” White wrote. “In these politically charged times, an officer’s identity should be withheld for at least 30 days in order to allow facts to come to light as to whether the officer should be charged with an offense or cleared, and any threats against the officers or their families have dissipated.”

The bill passed with “overwhelming” support in both the House and Senate, White wrote.

Organizations that were in favor of the bill, included Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, and the state Fraternal Order of Police, White said. According to the bill, public officials would be able to release the identification of the officer once 30 days have passed, criminal charges have been filed, or an investigation is completed.

“Shooting are increasingly political,” White wrote. “That places the lives of our officers and the lives of their family member in danger. While we need transparency whenever police are involved in a shooting, we owe our officers basic protection from threats. That’s why I will re-introduce the legislation in the 2017-18 session.”

Wolf made the following statement following his veto: “While I am deeply concerned for the safety of the Commonwealth’s police officers, government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government, and as such, I cannot sign into law a policy that will enshrine the withholding of information in the public interest,. These situations in particular – when law enforcement uses deadly force – demand utmost transparency, otherwise a harmful mistrust will grow between police officers and the communities they protect and serve. Further, I cannot allow local police department policies to be superseded and transparency to be criminalized, as local departments are best equipped to decide what information is appropriate to release to the public.”

The American Civil Liberties Union pushed back against the measure. In a letter to their supporters, ACLU leaders wrote, “The state legislature recently passed a bill to criminally charge public officials who release the name of a police officer who seriously injures or kills someone within 30 days of the incident. We entrust our police officers with a great deal of power, including the power to use force. That trust requires police departments to be transparent and accountable about their actions. That transparency is undermined by HB 1538, Please veto this legislation.”

Philadelphia Democrat Vanessa Lowery Brown, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus agreed with Wolf’s veto. She said of Wolf’s veto that it took “courage” because it sounds like a great idea.

“But it’s not when you consider this would have rolled back a key component of the Right to Know Law of 2008, which requires disclosure of most public records, such as police records. While police involved in fatal shootings can, and should, be identified, the Right to Know law does shield their address and any investigative materials from public disclosure.

“There have been far too many questionable shootings by police officers around the country over the last few years. The last thing we should be doing is giving officers more legal protection to hide behind when they are involved in a shooting. We, and they deserve to have the information public to ensure all are treated fairly. Transparency in police activity is essential for an open and honest relationship between our police and those they serve.”

The veto was Wolf’s eighth of his term.