The Arizona state Legislature recently passed a bill that would keep the names of police officers involved in the use of deadly or excessive force secret for 60 days. All that remains for Senate Bill 1445 to become law is for the governor to sign it.
The argument made by proponents of the bill is that it would essentially provide a “cooling-off” period to prevent potential tension against police officers from interfering with the justice process, and to keep defenders of the law safe.
However, this purpose doesn’t make sense for several reasons.
On a local level, Arizona already has legislation in place to deal with the issue of identifying officers who have used deadly or excessive force. Officers’ home addresses and telephone numbers are already exempt from disclosure under state public records law, making it easier to defend officers and their families.
Additionally, the decision of whether or not to withhold the name, and for how long, is left up to the discretion of the police chiefs located in the area where the incident occurred.
This policy actually makes a lot of sense. Leaving the decision up to local authority means that individuals making the decisions are intimately familiar with the area and could recognize if releasing the name would endanger the officer.
However, the new law would limit this power on both ends. If for some reason the police chief believed the release of the name needed to be restricted for more than 60 days, S.B. 1445 would remove that power. NBC News quotes the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police as opposing the bill, because it takes this control away from department heads.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the bill mandates that officer names be concealed, regardless of whether this is technically necessary in the context of the situation.
In most — if not all — cases, in fact, the concealing of the name is not necessary. House Representative Charlene Fernandez explained her decision to vote “no.”
“This bill was designed to protect an officer and the officers’ family,” Fernandez said. “However, there is not one documented case of officer vandalism to his home or harassment to his family after an incident relating to deadly or excessive use of force. … This bill was clearly a solution to a problem that does not exist.”
This bill will bring Arizona out of line with national standards, and it will interfere with the goals of Arizona’s law enforcement leaders. Yet, that is in no way the most problematic part of the bill.
The decision of a police officer to harm a civilian is one of incredible gravity. It represents an irreversible expression of government power. Transparency should be the name of the game — not policies that will hinder checks on the power of law enforcement agencies.
After all, the authority figures given the legal right to take a life should be the ones held to the highest standard of public accountability, not the lowest.
Moreover, this bill seems almost laughable in the face of the current wave of instances of unnecessary deadly force. Whether or not police officers are abusing their power, cases such as the Ferguson shooting and Michael Brown’s death are instances where that boundary was sketchy at best. Taking away the aspect of transparency provided when releasing the names of the officers involved is a surefire way to reduce public trust in law enforcement and lead to further corruption and abuse of power.
Frankly, S.B. 1445 won’t improve the safety of officers, because reducing the public’s trust in the police reduces their legitimacy. Jeopardizing the public’s trust of the police ultimately reduces everyone’s safety. We should be working to restore this trust, not block it with fancy legislation.
Maddie Pickens is an economics freshman. Follow her on Twitter.