When police in Tulsa and Oklahoma City shoot someone, their departments disclose the officers’ names, usually within about 24 hours.
In Wichita, the department withholds the names unless the police chief authorizes it, which apparently hasn’t happened in decades.
The nondisclosure policy was the subject of a protest at City Hall on Tuesday. Protesters interrupted the daily police briefing for media, demanding – but not receiving – the name of the officer who fatally shot 23-year-old John Paul Quintero on Jan. 3 outside a North Oliver home.
Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on police use of force, said his sense – minus a survey of about 17,000 police agencies nationwide – is that most departments release the names within 24 to 48 hours. They give the names, he said, “unless there is a compelling reason not to.”
Alpert says it’s wise to disclose the names as soon as possible.
“There’s no reason not to unless there’s a real threat” against the officers involved, said Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor. Disclosure provides transparency, he said, “and the more you hide it, the more people are going to look.”
Others, including a national police consultant, say that providing the names would endanger officers and their families at a time when police everywhere are being scrutinized and criticized after a series of controversial shootings, including one in Ferguson, Mo.
How police departments handle officer shootings has become part of a national debate.
Some people, including the chairwoman of Wichita’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board and a lawyer representing families of people fatally shot by Wichita police, say the public is entitled to know the names, partly to determine whether an officer has been accused of excessive force or been involved in a previous shooting.
Paul Zamorano, president of the police union that represents about 500 Wichita officers, said that in his 18 years with the department, he doesn’t remember the department ever releasing names of officers involved in shootings.
“Eventually, those names are going to come out” if someone sues over the shooting, he said. But in the days after a shooting, he said, emotions can run high.
Someone acting rashly could retaliate against an officer, and the current policy guards against such violence, he said.
In Wichita, the policy in place for years has been not to release names of officers involved in “critical incidents,” such as shootings, unless the police chief authorizes it, said Capt. Doug Nolte.
The rule – part of Policy 706, listed under the section on “Information that will NOT be released to the media” – is available on the Wichita police website.
The Wichita department regularly reviews its policies, Nolte said.
“What we think is a best practice today, tomorrow we might get some information that, you know, we need to change this policy, that we need to change directions because we have new information,” he said.
As far as the question of whether to release officers’ names, “For the last 20 years, this has not been an issue until it became an issue,” Nolte said.
One of the department’s goals, he said, is to work with the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union.
“Employees have rights, and we have to make sure we don’t put a policy in place that violates an employee’s rights,” he said.
“It’s just not as easy as saying, ‘We’re going to start releasing officers’ names,’” Nolte said. “We want information to get out to the community, but we have to protect the process by which we release information” and respect employees’ rights.
Tulsa, OKC practice
In Tulsa, police wait about 24 hours to release the name of an officer involved in a shooting, which gives enough time for the officer’s family to be notified and get support, said Tulsa police spokesman Leland Ashley.
The immediate period after a shooting “can be traumatic for the family” of the officer, Ashley said.
Still, it’s important to disclose the officer’s name, he said, because “It’s just to show transparency of our department.”
Withholding the name just invites “a cloud,” where “there’s a feeling somehow that someone’s hiding something,” he said.
In Oklahoma City, police have a similar response, said Capt. Paco Balderrama.
“We feel that it is best practice to go ahead and release the information,” Balderrama said. The Oklahoma City department has followed that practice for at least the past 10 years, he said.
Argument for disclosure
Sheila Officer, chairwoman of Wichita’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board, says that if an officer kills someone, the public “should know who that is.”
“Why are they trying to hide? Maybe they’re trying to hide because it’s not the first time for that officer,” Officer said.
If the department wants to build trust, she said, “They’ve got to do better than that.”
Wichita lawyer James A. Thompson represents families of four people killed by Wichita police, including Quintero, the latest person to be fatally shot. Thompson said that in one of his cases about two years ago, the city at first refused to reveal the names of the officers involved, citing privacy and safety concerns. A federal judge ordered the city to provide the names, Thompson said.
Since then, the city has allowed him to look at police investigative files for families he represents so he can get the names prior to the families suing the city, he said. Thompson gets to view the documents only as part of potential litigation and only after authorities have completed the investigation to determine whether the shooting warrants charges against the officer, he said.
Thompson also argues that the names should be considered public.
“These officers are public officials serving in a public capacity,” and if they harm someone, the public should know. “They don’t deserve additional privacy protection just because of the fact that they’re police officers.”
With police and the city saying they want to be transparent, “it seems like now more than ever they need to be releasing the names,” Thompson said.
Others take a different view. Kevin Gilmartin, a law enforcement behavioral scientist and consultant who works with agencies across the nation, said that five years ago he would have said that officers’ names should be released.
Although the practice varies nationwide, Gilmartin said, most agencies have opted to disclose names.
But his stance has dramatically changed in the past five years because, he says, the “threat level against police” and their families has risen since then.
“I’d be an advocate for not releasing,” Gilmartin said.
“I think police right now are being treated unfairly by a small segment” of the population, he added. Animosity toward police has been building over the last five years, before protests following the Ferguson shooting, he said.
Police have become targets of misinformation and distortion that have fed into an unfair belief that they target minorities, he said. To him, the potential benefit for the public in divulging names no longer outweighs the potential harm to an officer.
“All it takes is one person with lethal intent to kill the officer,” Gilmartin said.
High court finding
In 1998, the Kansas Supreme Court sided with the city of Wichita after police Officer Terry Fettke sued the city, alleging that police officials violated department policy by releasing his name to reporters after a fatal shooting of a civilian that involved Fettke.
In the high court’s conclusion, it noted that Fettke “received verbal threats while on duty,” his wife “received second-hand threats from co-workers” and their children were taunted. But the court said the policy violation wasn’t enough.
“We do not minimize the risk of retaliation that any officer involved in a shooting incident faces. However, that risk, under the facts here, does not qualify as ‘imminent danger’ of serious bodily harm.”
The city had argued that Fettke, as a police officer, was “a public official with no right of privacy,” the Kansas Supreme Court said. It quoted a police official as saying that he viewed threats on an officer’s life as “just part of that police officer’s duty.”
Last May, the California Supreme Court ruled that police must give the names of officers in on-duty shootings unless there is a specific threat to the officer.
“The 6-1 ruling by the state’s highest court is expected to end blanket police policies against disclosure and reverse a statewide trend toward keeping officer names private,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
In Sedgwick County, District Attorney Marc Bennett reviews police investigations to determine whether an officer shooting is justified or should result in criminal charges.
“Whether they (the Police Department) name the officer or not is their call,” Bennett said.
“I’m not there to advocate for it or advocate against it. I would be exceeding my responsibility to weigh in on something like this.”
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.