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Panel advances bill to keep officers’ names secret in deadly force incidents

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PHOENIX – Despite objections from open-government and civil rights activists, a state Senate committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold for 90 days the names of officers involved in deadly force incidents.

SB 1445 would apply unless the officer is arrested or charged, a criminal investigation is complete, the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure require the release or the officer consents to the release. The bill’s author, Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said his goal is protecting officers and their families.

“This bill came because we are trying to protect those who protect us,” he said.

Saying 90 days would provide a cooling-off period, some supporters pointed to the release a Phoenix police officer’s name in December after he shot and killed an unarmed drug suspect who was black, an incident that led to a public outcry.

Steve Henry, chief deputy for the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, said that a deputy who shot and killed a man after a high-speed chase received death threats when the department identified him 30 days later.

“The fallout from that was death threats to his family, death threats to himself, constantly having to look over his shoulder,” Henry said told the Senate Public Safety, Military and Technology Committee.

But Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, testifying before the committee, said keeping officers’ names secret for 90 days would reduce transparency and make emotions even more heated.

“It does not build trust, it does not build transparency, it does not provide accountability,” he said. “It actually does the opposite.”

Sandra Kennedy, a former state lawmaker representing the Maricopa County NAACP, said the change would lessen the public’s trust in law enforcement.

“When there is no transparency, then the public assumes there is a cover-up,” she said. “Then comes loss of trust.”

Chris Moeser, an attorney specializing in media law, said Arizona’s public records law gives officials the ability to protect officers when there is a credible threat by declining to release their names. If an agency denies a request for the name, the person or organization requesting it would have to file suit and have a judge decide whether the agency is acting properly.

But Moeser said from his experience a news organization wouldn’t pursue the information if officials cite a credible threat to an officer.

“If we had a public body that said, ‘Look, we can’t give you the name of this officer because we fear for his or her safety,’ that’s not something we would feel comfortable going to court to challenge,” Moeser said.

Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which suggested the bill, said there needs to be a balance between the public’s right to know and a police officer’s safety.

“What the bill doesn’t do is try to hide from the community the what, the hows, the why of what transpired,” he said.

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio said the officer whose name was released after the December incident faced a death threat as well as worries that demonstrators were going to picket his home.

“It’s not just about the protection of the officer,” he said. “It’s about the protection of the family.”

The committee endorsed the bill on a 3-1 vote with two members not present, forwarding it to the full Senate by way of the Rules Committee.

Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills and Smith voted in favor. Rep. Lupe Contreras, D-Cashion, voted against, saying the wording had too many loopholes.

“When I look at this, I look at protecting all, not only our officers,” he said. “But we still have to understand that there’s people that are wrongfully accused.”

Smith, the committee’s chairman, said he consulted with law enforcement organizations across the state to come to the 90-day period. He said it would allow for psychological healing for officers and time to relocate if necessary.

“I am not going to mortgage an officer’s life or family because somebody else thinks they have a right to that information when they might not know what might directly cause a reaction to that and have a member of their family die,” he said.