Skip to main content

Why We Shouldn't Be Withholding Officers' Names

Perhaps Virginians should call them "comrades." Or maybe just assign them numbers, to contribute to the dystopian vibe.

"I'm sorry, Officer 2312, but I didn't know I couldn't do that."

That's the direction Virginia is headed in after its assembly approved a bill that would withhold the names of police officers from the public. If the law passes, communities won't know the cops working their local beats. The media won't be able to report on problem officers or learn the names of officers involved in shootings. Entire categories of public records would be hidden from reporters, and the public.

The bill is heavily favored by Virginia's police unions. Why are they pushing it, and why do some politicians think it's a good idea?

It's the media's fault, according to Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police union.

“With the current trend across the country," Carroll told The Washington Post, "law enforcement officers have been attacked and even assassinated because of issues being driven in the media ... With technology now, if you have a name, you could find out where they live. It puts them at risk.”

Cops in the U.S. killed about 1,200 people in 2015. The exact figure is tough to pin down, because different organizations -- newspapers like the Guardian and The Washington Post, websites like ThinkProgress and -- use different methods for their tallies. Put in context, the numbers are shocking: American cops killed 59 people in the first 24 days of 2015, which is more than police in England and Wales have killed in the past 24 years, the Guardian reported.

Then there are the videos, anecdotes and the massive perception problem for U.S. law enforcement. Every day, new recorded examples of police brutality are uploaded to YouTube. Videos of police shooting civilians rack up millions of hits and ping pong around the internet as they're shared on social media and discussed by outraged Americans.

A quick search on YouTube turns up a video of officers torturing a man who's already been subdued and strapped to a chair; footage of a cop punching a kid on a New York City sidewalk, putting him in the back of a patrol car, and dumping the kid's cellphone before peeling away; and dozens of examples of cops kicking and punching people they've already cuffed and subdued.

So when Carroll says the tensions between Americans and police are the media's fault, what he really means is that Americans are finally seeing what police do daily. Fifteen years ago, before the ubiquity of phone cameras and expansive closed-circuit TV networks, only a fraction of a fraction of the images we see now would even exist. It was only 10 years ago that -- with the founding of YouTube -- the Internet had a reliable place to upload videos and share them.

The real problems are with law enforcement, with police culture and the way cops are trained. In an opinion piece titled "How Police Training Contributes to Avoidable Deaths," a former officer says it starts in the academy, "where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance."

"They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat," the officer wrote. "They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, 'complacency kills.'"

That's an approach used by military units in hostile territory, and not the way American police officers should view the communities they've sworn to protect and serve.

At the same time, with two wars winding down, there's a staggering amount of military surplus, and America's police departments are getting almost all of it. As The New York Times notes, “police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”

They've got the toys, and they've got the training. Is it any surprise that officers want to play at soldier?

Justifying why he voted for Virginia's secret police bill, Republican state Sen. John Cosgrove said “the culture is not one of respect for law enforcement anymore. It’s really, ‘How, how can we get these guys?'"

Yet respect is earned, not granted, and there's no indication criminals are flipping open phone books or searching the Internet to find the addresses of cops who've arrested them.

Virginia's police unions are ignoring what criminologists have been saying for years -- that the keys to developing strong relationships with the people they protect are transparency and openness. That means real community policing. Putting cops back on beats, walking the streets. Making sure local people know the officers who protect their neighborhoods, and feel comfortable going to them for help. Reaching out to the community in different ways -- through charities and fundraisers, kids' programs, community festivals -- so the public is reminded cops are regular people too.

Turning cops into nameless stormtroopers has the exact opposite effect, and will only widen the divide between police and people.

“I don’t know how you have community policing,” said Claire Gastaaga, director of Virginia's ACLU, “when nobody knows your name.”

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times, ThinkProgress, KilledByPolice, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Harvard Law Review / Photo credit: Wikia

Popular Video