Should agencies release the names of cops who shoot or apprehend terrorists?

Does releasing the name of an officer who shoots a suspected terrorist attacker put him or her in danger of terrorist retribution?


When an 18-year-old Somali refugee named Abdul Razak Ali Artan rammed pedestrians with a car and stabbed other victims when his vehicle became disabled on the Ohio State University campus, a young police officer leaped into action. He shot and killed the crazed attacker, and was widely — and correctly — hailed as a hero. 

The incident was soon suspected to be an act of terrorism as investigators discovered a rant on social media authored by the assailant in which he called Anwar Al-Awlaki a “hero” and threatened, “If you want us Muslims to stop carrying out lone wolf attacks, then make peace with ‘Dawla in al sham’ [a term for ISIS].”

Unfortunately, by the time news surfaced that the FBI was investigating possible online links between the OSU attacker and ISIS, the name of the officer involved in the incident had already been released to the press and the public. 

The scene of the attack on the Ohio State University campus had barely been locked down when the name of the officer involved in killing the attacker had been released to the press and the public. (AP Image)
The scene of the attack on the Ohio State University campus had barely been locked down when the name of the officer involved in killing the attacker had been released to the press and the public. (AP Image)

Officers speak out about withholding names
This sparked discussion about whether or not agencies should ever reveal the name of an officer who shoots a terrorist because doing so may be putting him or her in danger of terrorist retribution. Here is a very small sampling (edited for brevity, clarity, and grammar) of what our PoliceOne LinkedIn users thought about the issue.

Earl Howerton — “When the deceased is a terrorist, no. Aren’t we in a war on terrorists? Why would we want to endanger our officers unduly by providing that type of information? While I’m at it, are our public disclosure laws written well enough to keep that information from being released?”

Colin Burrows QPM — “In the U.K., applications for ‘anonymity’ are regularly made not just in terrorist shooting cases but also in respect of organized crime gangs. Because formalized post-incident processes begin immediately after shots are fired, anonymity designations are often used. These can be as simple as 'officer a' and 'officer b' or 'officers one and two.' Where there is a challenge to anonymity the courts will make a ruling.”

Thomas Fielden — “The officer’s name should not be released until the investigation of the shooting is completed. Once completed and the shooting adjudicated as justified, then names should only be released at the discretion of the involved officer(s).”

Joe Felinski — “As a LEO...I say absolutely not! …The identity of special ops and intelligence personnel is protected on a national level to prevent retaliation. In my agency, the identity of narcotics and intelligence detectives is protected for this very reason. I don’t think this just applies to deadly force encounters with terrorists. This should always apply to any deadly force encounter at least until the full investigation is complete.”

Bob Rosales — “No, but they should make sure that they release the names of terrorists and their known associates!”

Christopher Burgos — “No. Due process dictates a fair and impartial investigation with proper counsel. LEOs do not give up their constitutional rights when they take the oath. Just as anyone else that takes action in good faith, the facts must be put forward before speculation and assumptions.”

Dave Beyer — “No. Officer safety is paramount. I think we all understand discovery and due process, however this is not one of those areas where the public’s need to know outweighs the safety and security of officers and their families.”

What’s desirable versus what’s practical
It is unsurprising that the overwhelming majority of respondents on LinkedIn said that officers’ names should be withheld when the decedent in an OIS is a terrorist or suspected to be — that doing so presents risks for the officers and their families. 

Without even having such provocations, we have seen countless attacks on police officers in the theater of war in the Middle East, and ISIS propaganda has routinely called for self-radicalized residents of Western nations to attack cops. Cops have been targeted in Belgium, DenmarkFrance, and even Russia

Although less common here than in Europe, police officers in the United States have come under attack multiple times — a Philadelphia police officer was deliberately ambushed by an assailant inspired by jihadist rhetoric, for just one example. 

So it would be optimal if the names of officers involved in stopping terrorist attacks here in America were kept secret. 

In an idea world, that’s what we’d do. 

However, we do not live in an ideal world. 

While agencies should resist releasing names, in this day and age of an instant-gratification need for information on the part of the press and the public, that may not be a realistic expectation. Consider the following comment on LinkedIn: 

John Franklin — “Of course, most of us would say no, out of concerns for the safety of our families; however, in these days of transparency of law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, I don’t believe it will be possible to keep that information from the news media. It pretty much goes with the job now; an officer who uses deadly force which results in a death should fully expect to see their name released to the news media soon after the event occurs.”

And this one:

Jason Mitchell — “It depends. It’s information that will eventually be released. There needs to be some thought about when the information will be released and it should be done after consulting with the officer, his counsel, and intel." 

The reality is that officers’ names are likely to be discovered one way or another. 

Protecting the officers, not the officers’ names
So, given the fact of this information eventually getting out, what can be done? The obvious answer is that protecting the officers’ names is one thing, but protecting the actual officer is a much higher-priority item. Agencies do this today for their officers involved in incidents that present an elevated risk of revenge. 

Arguably, based on sheer volume alone, cops are more at risk of retribution from gangbangers and sovereign citizens than the comrades of jihadis. Cops are put in far more situations in which they have to shoot (and sometimes, kill) armed and dangerous members of gangs. Those gangs do not take lightly to the loss of one of their own. 

Similarly, it is well documented that sovereign citizens wage a “paper war” on officers following a traffic stop or other contact. They tend to file frivolous lawsuits and place liens of people’s property, ruining credit scores and costing millions in court fees. Is that the same thing as a bomb under your car seat? No. Is it a total pain in the seat of the pants? Yes.

Consider this comment from LinkedIn:

D. H. Riou, CPM — “There are valid reasons for not releasing the names. It makes the officer, their family and agency potential targets for retaliation requiring resources to protect them. This would also identify them as targets for any copycats. Officers have enough to think [about] during and after deadly force situations without having to feel their actions place more people in jeopardy. 

“If you look at other countries, particularly in Europe and South America, their anti-terror units in the police and military are protected this way. Closer to home, look at how we protect the identities of our military special ops and intelligence community members. We often think of national security as a matter of large issues, when we should be considering the smaller everyday things that reduce the number of targets for terrorists.

“If the shooting appears to be a terrorist-inspired shooting by someone whose only contact has been through the Internet, then I wouldn’t be terribly concerned. I think an officer would face a greater threat if she killed a gang member or a member of an organized hate group.”

Keep your head on a swivel, and watch your six
Every possible effort to keep officers’ names secret is a good first step. But more importantly, agencies — and individual officers themselves — should harden their defenses against retaliatory attacks of all kinds. The successful takedown of a terrorist in Anytown, USA should lead every cop in America to heighten their vigilance against ambush. 

This fight is not going away anytime soon, my brothers and sisters, so watch your six.

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