Holding police departments accountable to the communities they serve, requires as much transparency as possible—which includes identifying cops by name who are involved in alleged misconduct. Maryland is the latest example of states struggling to be on the right side of police transparency. The state’s highest court voted unanimously on Tuesday to restore officers’ names to a searchable online statewide database of arrests.
Last week, police reform activists in Maryland denounced the removal of officers’ names from a publicly accessible database. “This is a critical tool for civil rights advocates to use in policing the police, and without it we lose the type of transparency necessary to do our jobs,” Baltimore civil rights lawyer Cary Hansel told the Washington Post.
Philadelphia offers another example of why naming officers is so important: Only after a judge’s order, Philadelphia’s district attorney revealed the names on March 6 of cops on his office’s secret list of police officers who should not testify in court. These 29 current and former cops have a history of racial bias and using excessive force. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order in August to post civilian complaints against Philadelphia police officers in an online database. It was billed as a plan to build trust between the police and communities. The monthly reports include a brief narrative of the complaint, how it was investigated and the outcome. However, officials reversed the longstanding practice of naming the officers when the order went into effect in November.
Police departments contend that their resistance to revealing officers’ names in public databases is to protect the safety of cops. Advocacy groups, however, argue that naming police officers can help them to uncover patterns of misconduct that would otherwise go unnoticed. Moreover, it’s necessary to compel police departments to reveal names publicly because police departments typically do everything they can to avoid sharing information.
The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a two-year study, released in 2017, that illustrated the extent to which police departments resist openness. NYCLU asked 23 departments across the state for information about the use of force, stops and detentions, complaints about alleged misconduct, racial profiling and the use of surveillance technologies. Only three of the departments provided the requested information. Many of them ignored the requests until the organization threatened to file lawsuits.