Baltimore may change policy on releasing officers' names

Proposal would apply in shootings of civilians

By Annie Linskey and Nick Madigan
Baltimore Sun reporters

BALTIMORE, Md. — The Baltimore Police Department is considering changing a long-standing practice of quickly releasing names of officers who kill or injure citizens, which would run contrary to policies of several local and big-city agencies.

Under one plan, the officer's name would be released only after investigations by the department's internal investigation division, homicide and the state's attorney's office, said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the city police and the mayor's office. Those investigations can take months.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III defended the change, saying that police officers involved in departmental shootings could become targets themselves. "We have to have a common-sense policy of balancing the officer's safety and the [officer's] family's safety against giving as much information as we can," he said.

A police spokesman had said in an e-mail to The Sun over the weekend that the policy change would be formalized soon. But after The Sun confronted Mayor Sheila Dixon about the issue yesterday, her staff said she had not been briefed on the matter. Her aides said the change is not imminent and would be thoroughly vetted.

In an interview, Dixon said: "I will follow the lead of our Police Department. I think the police officers have to protect themselves."

Last year, police officers shot 31 people, killing 13. This year, police have shot three people, killing all of them. Police had declined for weeks to release the names of officers in two of those shootings that occurred since Jan. 30. Clifford released the names Sunday, saying it would be unfair to impose a new policy retroactively.

Clifford said Officer Tommy Sanders shot Edward Lamont Hunt on Jan. 30 in the 2300 block of E. Northern Parkway. A defense attorney for Hunt's family said the man was unarmed and had been searched moments before.

Clifford also said that Officer Aaron McCullough fatally shot Dale Rodney Jones in the 4400 block of Fairview Ave. Police said Jones was armed with a knife and had just fatally stabbed his girlfriend and thrown her body out an apartment window.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said that her boss also has concerns about withholding names. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy "would not to do anything to jeopardize the progress that we have made with our relationship with the community," Burns said.

Edward T. Norris, a former Baltimore police commissioner who is now a radio talk show host, said that he could understand the department's reluctance to name officers involved in shootings, but he said the public's right to know was more important.

"I think the sense of it would be you are kind of hiding something if you don't [release names]," he said. "I had police-involved shootings. We always have them. We keep their names quiet for a little while, but we give them out. You are responsible to the public."

Doug Ward, director of the division of public safety leadership for the Johns Hopkins University, said police agencies need to be transparent. "As a society we generally do trust most police organizations to do their own internal police investigations," he said. "However it does not diminish the citizens' right to know."

Officer Kenneth Bryson, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, said release of such names depends on the circumstances.

Officer Sara Faden, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said her agency is under orders from the city's police commission "to release the names of officers who have shot," even if they were working undercover.

The Baltimore County Police Department does not always divulge names immediately. The release is made only "on the judgment of the media-relations office," said spokesman Bill Toohey, on whose shoulders the decision falls.

Toohey said he takes into account "the seriousness of the event and the aftermath of the event."

Lt. Jeffrey T. Silverman, Anne Arundel County police spokesman, said his department typically divulges officers' names within 12 to 24 hours. "We've never withheld the name, because we believe it's public information," he said. "We allow the officer to notify his family, and we notify other members of the agency internally. Once all the notifications are done, then we prepare to release the information to the media and the public."

Copyright 2008 The Baltimore Sun

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