from the can't-be-making-info-about-public-servants-public dept
Washington DC responded to widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd with a set of police reforms that tried to address some systemic problems in the district’s police department, starting with its lack of transparency and accountability.
The reform bill — passed two weeks after George Floyd’s killing — placed new limits on deadly force deployment, banned the Metropolitan PD from acquiring military equipment through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, and mandated release of body-camera footage within 72 hours of any shooting by police officers. The names of the officers involved are covered by the same mandate, ensuring it won’t take a lawsuit to get the PD to disclose info about officers deploying deadly force.
But there’s a lawsuit already in the mix — one that hopes to keep the public separated from camera footage and officers’ names. Unsurprisingly, it’s been filed by a longtime opponent of police accountability.
The Washington, D.C., police union said on Monday it asked a court to block the mandatory release of body camera footage and names of police officers involved in shootings.
According to the union, releasing the names of officers will do bad things to the good names of cops who kill people.
“The release of the body-camera footage and names of officers will unjustly malign and permanently tarnish the reputation and good name of any officer that is later cleared of misconduct concerning the use of force,” the union said in a statement.
First off, it’s almost impossible to “permanently tarnish” a cop’s reputation. Even the worst cops often have little trouble resuming their law enforcement careers after engaging in egregious misconduct. They may have to shop their resumes around a little bit, but lots of PDs and Sheriffs’ offices are more than willing to hire bad cops no longer welcome at their original agency.
Second, nothing about this should hinge on whether or not the force deployment was justified. If an officer is later cleared of wrongdoing, they’ll be able to go back to work. If not, they’ll probably still be able to go back to work — either with the DCPD or with any other agency more interested in staffing their forces than performing due diligence.
And it’s a little rich for the union to ask that officers’ names be withheld on the off chance they might be found innocent. The names of people arrested or cited are public records, even if they’re ultimately never convicted of a crime. Suing to get cops held to a lower standard is a terrible use of taxpayer funds. Public sector unions collect dues from paychecks and build their litigation war chests using donations from officers — all of which can ultimately be traced back to the same public the union is trying to keep in the dark.
The lawsuit [PDF] (which inexplicably isn’t included in multiple articles about the lawsuit) raises the specter of vengeful vigilantes hunting down cops who killed or maimed friends or family members.
When officers justifiably use force against a criminal suspect, the immediate public release of the officer’s name and the body-worn camera footage will allow the suspect and their associates to identify the officer and potentially seek retribution against the officer and his or her family.
This is a ridiculous reason to withhold officers’ names. This is Hollywood rationale — an uninspired trope that’s best left in an undeveloped screenplay. It’s not that it never happens. It’s that it happens so rarely it can’t be raised as a plausible argument for blanket secrecy.
The lawsuit also argues — equally implausibly — that there’s an inherent right to privacy contained in actions performed by public servants in public.
The release of the officer’s name and other identifying information contained in the body-worn camera footage will further impermissibly invade the officer’s fundamental right to privacy.
Doesn’t seem there would be that much privacy in performing public service, especially when someone gets serviced to death by an officer’s force deployment. But that’s the argument the union will make to shield its fan base from public criticism. Hopefully, the DC court will route this lawsuit to its OUT box as quickly as possible so DC residents can start benefiting from the transparency the district has finally forced on its police force.