This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
If a police officer shoots someone, should the police department be able to withhold the officer's name from the public for four months?
That is the intent of House Bill 306, Public Safety Officer Privacy Amendments, which would allow police departments to withhold from the public the identity of officers involved in "critical situations." The desire is to protect the officers and their families from harassment, but the effect is that the police work becomes more opaque, which consistently has been shown to work against both public and officer safety.
Why four months? That is so there is time for investigations to take place. But investigations often take much longer than that, particularly on the more difficult cases where public interest is highest. Why doesn't the bill allow a longer period? Because the bill's sponsor recognizes that whoever has been shot by police may need adequate time to prepare a legal case before the one-year statute of limitations prevents them from suing.
It's a balancing act, and one we've already addressed. Police departments in Utah currently have the discretion to withhold officers' identities, and they often do. What would be more rare is the immediate release of officers' names in critical incidents. The existing applicable law is the Government Records Access and Management Act, and it allows exceptions for withholding information for protecting officers and their families and for ensuring the integrity of investigations.
In other words, GRAMA already does everything HB306 would do. It just requires that government entities have proper justification for their actions. That applies to withholding as well as releasing information. Officers are actually better protected under GRAMA than they would be under HB306.
There are no Utah examples of officer harassment that bill proponents could cite in a recent legislative hearing, so they went to the riot-triggering police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., three years ago as justification. The white officer who shot a black citizen was vilified by protesters, but a grand jury declined to file charges against him. Whatever one may think of justice in Ferguson, it's hard to argue that waiting four months to release the officer's name would have helped the situation.
And that's because all that withholding information does is lower the public's trust. If the officer has done nothing wrong, why is he hidden? If he has done something wrong, why is he hidden?
Further, the bill actually says it's up to the police department whether to release the names. In other words, this is only about protecting the officer if his bosses want him protected. Are we protecting officers, or their departments? If the departments can decide on their own whether to release a name, is releasing an indication that the department thinks he acted wrongly? If so, doesn't that interfere with the officer's right to due process?
Police work is hard, but it's also public. Police and prosecutors already have the discretion they need, and they can do it without blanket restrictions on information.
Legislators should walk away from HB306. They can do it with full confidence that officers and their families are protected by existing law, and it hasn't come at the cost of public trust.