Baltimore ends public oversight of police killings

Baltimore police will no longer release the names of officers who kill or injure people, changing a long-standing practice that the department believes put officers at risk.

The decision is prompting criticism from several Baltimore leaders, who said withholding officers’ names will only endanger an already tenuous relationship between the police and the community. Baltimore police shot 21 people last year, 13 of them fatally – the same number killed by police in 2007, when 31 people were shot. Those numbers are up from 2006, when 15 were shot and five killed.

“If we’re ever going to get to a point where the community trusts the police, we need to have some transparency and full disclosure about what’s happening,” said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a West Baltimore Democrat who is a public defender.

The Police Department is asking residents to become more engaged in their neighborhoods and to work with police to solve crimes and overcome a “Stop Snitching” culture. Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said he wouldn’t want police to give out information that endangers officers, but he said the new policy “doesn’t help” improve community relations.

“We’ve got to find more and better ways to bring the community and police together,” he said. “This may not sit too well with many of us.”

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III declined to comment on the change, saying he left the decision to new department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The new policy mirrors those of some other departments and is designed to protect officers from retaliation, Guglielmi said.

A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said she will not interfere with the department’s decision.

Regionally and across the country, police agencies differ in their disclosure of police-involved shootings; some release the names within hours and others withhold the information altogether.

The police union applauded the policy change. Robert F. Cherry, president of the Baltimore police union and a former homicide detective, said the department vigorously investigates shootings that involve officers.

“If anything, the investigation is more intensive than for the average citizen,” Cherry said. “The only thing the department is doing differently is choosing not to release their name. … I’m surprised we haven’t gone to this earlier.”

Talk of the change surfaced nearly a year ago in February, but officials in the mayor’s office said they had not been briefed and promised the issue would be thoroughly vetted. Over the summer, police informally stopped releasing names of officers involved in shootings.

Six people were shot by officers during that span, and only one officer was identified. Four victims were identified.

Among the last officers whose names were released was Officer Tommy Sanders, who has since been indicted on manslaughter charges in connection with the death of Edward Lamont Hunt at a Northeast Baltimore shopping center. Hunt was shot several times in the back after he attempted to flee. Sanders, 38, is scheduled to go to trial next month.

Guglielmi, who joined the department last month after a stint with the federal Office of the Special Counsel, said the change is not a department-wide rule but a policy of the public affairs office, which disseminates information.

Guglielmi said the department will release the names of officers only if they are found through an internal investigation to have erred – though that could require a policy change as well, since the department currently does not notify the public about the results of internal investigations.

“After doing a couple ride-alongs [with officers], I sincerely believe there are some security implications for identifying officers unless they were found in the wrong,” he said.

Guglielmi cited backlash against Officer Salvatore Rivieri, the Inner Harbor patrol officer who was videotaped berating a teenage skateboarder. The video was posted on YouTube and appeared on national television, and police said Rivieri has received death threats at his home.

But Doug Ward, director of the division of public safety leadership for the Johns Hopkins University and a former state trooper, said the Rivieri case is a perfect example of the public’s right to know about a potential problem officer. He said police must provide a certain amount of transparency for the public to trust that their internal investigative process is responsible.

“I understand that they’re trying to protect their own and that kind of thing, but I’m not sure that’s good public policy,” Ward said.

A spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said last year that she had concerns about the prospect of withholding officers’ names and “would not do anything to jeopardize the progress that we have made with our relationship with the community.” The spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, said yesterday that Jessamy’s position had not changed.

Alvin O. Gillard, director of the city community relations commission, said he hopes police will look more closely at the community impact.

“Unless there’s some compelling reason, I don’t know if it’s going to be helpful in rebuilding that [trust],” Gillard said.

Many Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies report names of officers involved in shootings. Anne Arundel County releases the information within 12 to 24 hours. Baltimore County police release information on the judgment of its media relations office. Maryland State Police and the Harford County Sheriff’s Office decide case-by-case, typically taking the officer’s assignment into consideration.

Maj. Andrew Ellis, commander of the Prince George’s County police public affairs office, said his department waits 24 hours after a shooting, then publishes information on the department’s Web site.

“We believe it is in the public interest for our residents to know when our officers use deadly force,” Ellis said. “Our officers are public agents. One thing the chief has promised is that there will be transparency with our agency.”

In other big cities, policies are split on the issue. Washington Metropolitan police release officers’ names depending on the circumstances; Los Angeles police are under orders from the city’s police commission to release the names of officers, even if they were working undercover.

Boston police do not release names until an internal investigation is complete. Police in Detroit, Philadelphia and New York do not divulge names at all, officials said. The FBI also withholds names.

“That’s basically for the safety of the agent in question, as there may be individuals who may try to retaliate against that agent,” said FBI spokesman Bill Carter. “The names do get out, in many instances, [when] the [local field offices] will look at it to determine if it was a rightful shooting. But we do not as a policy.”

Many critics of Baltimore’s policy change noted that officers involved with shootings are often taken off the streets while a review is conducted, reducing the danger of retaliation.

Moreover, critics said, knowing the identity of police officers is crucial to public accountability.

“In the aftermath of a shooting, citizens would be interested in whether there’s been any other incidents related to that officer,” said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That would seem like extremely important information, and there would be no way to know that unless you have the name.”

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