When his son was fatally shot by police last December, Terrell Tate-Skinner demanded to know who did it. Brandon Tate-Brown had been killed by Philadelphia police during a struggle following a routine traffic stop — and his father saw getting the names of the officers as the first step to justice.
Tate-Skinner and several dozen activists staged a rally outside the city’s police headquarters after the shooting. At the protests, demonstrators took on the rallying cry: “Who killed Brandon Tate-Brown?”
The tension at that rally highlights a common dilemma facing officials in the wake of a tragedy: What information should be disclosed to the public, and what should remain secret? The question has given rise to a simmering debate between the city’s police commissioner and rank-and-file officers.
After years of criticism that police investigations in Philadelphia were too opaque — including a critical Justice Department report earlier this year — Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey overturned the longstanding policy of withholding officers’ names. The department now identifies officers three days after a shooting incident.
“I don’t think you can shoot someone and expect to remain anonymous,” says Commissioner Ramsey. “And I do think that we have a responsibility as a police agency that work[s] for the people to provide that information, unless there are some extenuating circumstances.”
The change had the backing of criminal justice activists and the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the leader of the city’s influential police union, John McNesby, pushed back, calling the move “insane and absurd.”
“It makes it a little bit more difficult today because you actually have to look over your shoulder,” he says. “We have families, too. We’re not asking for the world. We’re asking for fairness.”
Speaking at an event packed wall-to-wall with police, McNesby laid out new legislation that would prevent cities across Pennsylvania from revealing the names of officers who fire their weapons, unless charges are filed.
Martina White, the state representative sponsoring the bill, says the identities of officers who use deadly force should be kept secret to protect police from harassment and possible attacks. And retired police officer Rich Costello was among those cheering in the police union hall when the proposed legislation was announced.
“It’s extremely reasonable, and it’s something that would be observed in the case of any other citizen in this country,” Costello says. “Unfortunately, police are guilty until proven innocent. That’s what this bill attempts to combat.”
Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, says releasing officer names builds public trust — but it’s no panacea.
“It’s not necessarily going to calm tensions where there is tension between the community and the police department, but it’s information,” he says. “You know: patterns of conduct, or decisions about that conduct, by the agency itself.
In most states, police departments aren’t required by state law to divulge officers’ names after a deadly interaction. But Buchner says activists in many places are fighting to make departments be more upfront about what officer was involved.
Commissioner Ramsey, though, says if an officer feels in danger, the name won’t be revealed. He says the public has a responsibility, too: “To not then use this to threaten people or cause harm to people. You know, you have to be concerned about that.”
He adds: “But I think that it doesn’t outweigh the public’s need to really have that information.”
The Pennsylvania bill keeping police names anonymous has the support of nearly a fourth of the state House of Representatives.
Ramsey says if the bill passes, he’ll call on Gov. Tom Wolf to veto it.