As calls for more accountable policing ring through communities in Tampa Bay and across the country, a Florida appeals court has given law enforcement permission for more secrecy. The court ruled that the identities of officers can be withheld in use-of-force incidents if the officers themselves were threatened, citing a state constitutional amendment that grants privacy protections to crime victims. But police shootings aren’t a private matter, and the Legislature should amend the law to preserve transparency between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
The decision by the First District Court of Appeal came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Tallahassee Police officers. One was responding to a report of an aggravated battery when he shot and killed the suspect who had waved a large hunting knife and charged at the officer. The other was on the scene of a reported stabbing when the armed suspect raised his gun toward the officer. The officer shot the suspect, who later died. In each incident, the lawsuit alleged, the officers were victims of crimes and therefore had the right to invoke the privacy protections granted by Marsy’s Law.
The 2018 amendment to the Florida constitution, which passed with 61% voter approval, gives crime victims the right “to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family.” That language may seem reasonable, but even before this recent court ruling, Marsy’s Law had been cited by police agencies throughout the state in withholding even basic information about cases of great public interest.
When a gunman shot and killed five women in a SunTrust bank in 2019, Sebring police initially refused to release the names of the dead. Closer to home, Tampa police would not name George Gage, who was killed last year by an impaired motorist while walking on Bayshore Boulevard. By using the amendment as an excuse for secrecy, law enforcement agencies are inhibiting the public’s ability to fully assess what’s happening in their communities.
Now police have license to apply that secrecy to their own conduct. The appellate court said police meet the definition of crime victims “when a crime suspect threatens the officer with deadly force, placing the officer in fear for his life.” The thing is, that’s often the case in police shootings: A suspect became aggressive, the officer fired. And before the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, that version of events was rarely challenged — at least, it rarely withstood a challenge. Technology now enables greater scrutiny, triggering the painful but necessary reckoning of how police departments throughout the country treat communities of color.
That’s why the appellate court’s decision is such a setback, blocking transparency at a time when law enforcement and communities need to rebuild mutual trust. And that’s not just the opinion of activists shouting “defund the police.” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Times “the lack of transparency breeds suspicion, and suspicion breeds contempt and … leads to more problems than it solves.” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren summed up why police officers are not like other crime victims: “At a certain point, an officer goes from being a victim to being a sworn officer of the state, acting on behalf of the community, and if we want to rebuild trust with the community, that officer’s name should not be withheld.”
Restoring transparency will require action by the Legislature to specifically exclude police acting in their official capacity from privacy shields afforded regular crime victims. That’s a heavy lift — and highly unlikely this year with the legislative session winding down. But there is a difference between a store owner who is a victim of a robbery and the uniformed officer who responds to confront the robbery suspect. Recognizing the distinction would ensure that a measure intended to protect crime victims does not harm the public’s ability to hold police accountable.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.