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Wolf vetoes bill on when to ID cops involved in deadly force

| Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, 1:54 p.m.
Pennsylvania  Gov. Tom Wolf appears in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf appears in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed legislation that would have restricted the situations in which police officers are identified after firing their weapon or using force that results in death or serious injury, saying decisions about withholding such information are best left to individual departments.

The bill passed both chambers in the Republican-controlled House and Senate by veto-proof majorities, despite protests by some urban lawmakers that it would worsen community relations by advancing what they called a lack of transparency.

Police unions supported the bill, and its backers said it provided protection to officers in the charged days following an encounter whose facts are murky. The bill had been propelled, at least in part, by the Philadelphia Police Department's policy of naming an officer within 72 hours of an officer's shooting someone.

The veto by Wolf came nine days before the end of Pennsylvania's two-year legislative session, and neither chambers' leaders showed any sign Monday that they would recall rank-and-file lawmakers to Harrisburg to try to override it.

In his veto message, Wolf said the law would have withheld important information from the public while overriding the decisions or policies of municipal police departments.

“I am deeply concerned for the safety of the Commonwealth's police officers, but this legislation does not necessarily provide greater protection to law enforcement while it seriously inhibits public access to information,” Wolf wrote in his veto message to the House.

The bill did not seek to prevent the release of an officer's name if he or she was charged with a crime, and it did not prevent the state attorney general or county district attorneys from releasing the officer's name.

But, under the bill, the officer's name could have been withheld by the police department if an investigation did not produce charges. Under that scenario, a police department could have decided that releasing the name could create a risk of harm to the officer or their family. However, an officer's name still could have been released under court order or with the officer's consent.

At the very least, the bill would have prevented the release of the officer's name until at least 30 days after the incident or during a police investigation.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, said in a statement that she would reintroduce the bill in the Legislature's next two-year session, starting in January.

“In these politically charged times, an officer's identity should be withheld for at least 30 days in order to allow facts to come to light as to whether the officer should be charged with an offense or cleared, and any threats against the officers or their families have dissipated,” White said.

In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross supported Wolf's veto, saying that “it is not Harrisburg's role to run Philadelphia's police department.”

The city's policy of releasing an officer's name within 72 hours unless the officer or their family is in danger was adopted to improve community relations, they said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania supported Wolf's veto, saying it is in line with transparency and accountability for police departments.

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