EDITORIAL: Why the sudden race against government transparency in PA Legislature?
We are in the waning days of a two-year legislative session, one in which Pennsylvania’s House and Senate have held more than 100 combined session days and many weeks’ worth of committee hearings. And yet, suddenly, there are at least three bills that seem to be hurtling towards the governor’s desk, without discussion or thoughtful consideration, that would represent a massive step backward in terms of government transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania.
The first of these bills, HB1538, would allow law enforcement to shield the name of a police officer who seriously injured or killed a person, except in the rarest of circumstances when criminal charges are filed against that officer. We recognize the critical, and often dangerous, work that police officers perform. We also support, in this bill and others, an exception to the release of a police officer’s name if there is a reasonable threat of harm to that officer. At the same time, however, police are paid with public dollars, carry deadly weapons, and have the power to injure, or even kill, another human being in an instant. The truth is that communities often know which police officers are involved in serious incidents; there may even be a cell phone recording of the event. Who, then, is this bill trying to protect, in making it a crime for a police department to immediately release the name of the officer involved? The names of those shot or killed are public; the same must be true for the officer who pulled the trigger.
SB976 would permit law enforcement to use bodycams to record police interactions with citizens, but would effectively prevent public access to the footage. Police departments all across the country have recognized the public and community benefits from releasing dashcam and bodycam footage, with the Seattle Police Department even developing software that allows for easy redaction of this footage and home-viewing by the public. That product, now called CrimeReports, is already in use in 1,100 police departments across the country. Why not Pennsylvania? Bodycam videos are the best, most objective evidence of what actually occurred in a police-citizen encounter. They are an unbiased view of the incident for the community and have been used all across the country to both hold police accountable and to verify the appropriateness of police action, calming community concerns. Of course there will be times when the video should be redacted, but the footage must be presumptively public. Anything else breeds mistrust and is harmful to both law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Finally, HB297 would severely restrict access to the most basic name, cause and manner of death information that coroners currently provide, and which can be so important for communities to know and understand. Coroners are public officials, performing a government function, funded by taxpayers. Their determinations on name, cause and manner of death are currently public under the Right to Know Law. Providing this basic information provides critical information to communities about drug use or epidemics, dangerous teen behavior, and criminal activity. Shouldn’t we know if there are people dying from heroin laced with fentanyl in our communities? Shouldn’t we know that someone was murdered, when a killer is still at large? What about a suicide, when there is concern about a suicide-pact? Or the blood-alcohol content of DUI drivers when they kill and injure themselves and others on public roads?
There is a reason that name, cause and manner of death were expressly made public in the 2008 overhaul of the Right to Know Law — because the information is critical to our understanding of what’s happening in our communities and to our everyday lives. HB297 would greatly restrict access to that fundamental information; it is misguided and contrary to the public interest.
We urge Pennsylvania’s legislators to reject these bills, or amend them to protect the public’s right to know. It would be a real step backward for Pennsylvania if they rush through the Legislature without more thought and care. Candidates for public office regularly affirm their commitment to open government; we hope that our sitting legislators will do the same.
This editorial was written by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and distributed to its members for publication.