A leg­isla­tive triple threat that needs to be re­jected

Penn­syl­va­nia’s Gen­eral As­sem­bly is on a rep­re­hen­si­ble streak when it comes to ad­vanc­ing 11th-hour leg­is­la­tion that would roll back trans­parency in gov­ern­ment and griev­ously re­strict the pub­lic’s right to in­for­ma­tion.

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - — The But­ler Ea­gle

First it was leg­is­la­tion that would al­low law en­force­ment agen­cies to with­hold the name of po­lice of­fi­cers in­volved in a firearm dis­charge or fa­tal shoot­ing. That bill, HB 1538, seemed dead in the wa­ter un­til last week, when the state Se­nate’s Law and Jus­tice Com­mit­tee sud­denly amended it and put it up for con­sid­er­a­tion.

Then it was leg­is­la­tion si­mul­ta­ne­ously au­tho­riz­ing po­lice of­fi­cers to wear body cam­eras in­side homes and video­tape peo­ple with­out no­ti­fi­ca­tion, while also giv­ing de­part­ments carte blanche to with­hold po­lice record­ings from pub­lic records re­quests. Se­nate Bill 976 was tabled in early Fe­bru­ary be­fore sud­denly be­ing taken up again last week, amended and passed on to the House’s Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee for con­sid­er­a­tion.

Now it’s a bill — House Bill 297 — that would func­tion­ally elim­i­nate the pub­lic’s ac­cess to ba­sic in­for­ma­tion that is rou­tinely re­leased by coro­ners. The leg­is­la­tion ini­tially pro­hib­ited re­leas­ing the in­for­ma­tion for 72 hours, but was amended last week to pro­hibit it from be­ing dis­closed at all. It al­ready has passed a House vote and is be­ing con­sid­ered in the state Se­nate.

The cases against th­ese de­struc­tive bills are ob­vi­ous. Each would, in its own way, se­verely dam­age the pub­lic’s abil­ity to gather in­for­ma­tion about what is go­ing on in and around their lives each day. Taken to­gether, their ef­fects would be am­pli­fied con­sid­er­ably.

Po­lice are paid with tax­payer dol­lars and given the au­thor­ity to carry and use deadly weapons on a daily ba­sis. They are a highly vis­i­ble, pow­er­ful and vi­tal part of most com­mu­ni­ties. Why shouldn’t those com­mu­ni­ties have rea­son­able ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion vi­tal to form­ing in­formed con­clu­sions on how ef­fec­tively of­fi­cers dis­charge their du­ties?

Sim­i­larly, coro­ners are pub­lic of­fi­cials whose de­ter­mi­na­tions on name, cause and man­ner of death — all of which are al­ready specif­i­cally pub­lic un­der Penn­syl­va­nia’s 2008 Right to Know Law — go to the heart of peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of what is oc­cur­ring in their com­mu­ni­ties ev­ery day. Whether that’s drug use, vi­o­lent crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, or risky be­hav­ior such as drunken driv­ing, re­strict­ing such in­for­ma­tion would have a chill­ing ef­fect on com­mu­ni­ties’ abil­ity to iden­tify, un­der­stand and re­spond to is­sues of pub­lic in­ter­est.

Leg­is­la­tors — and, if nec­es­sary, Gov. Tom Wolf — must stop th­ese ill-con­ceived pieces of leg­is­la­tion be­fore they cause sub­stan­tial harm to cit­i­zens. Other­wise the clos­ing weeks of this leg­isla­tive ses­sion will go down as some of the most de­struc­tive and back­ward in re­cent mem­ory.

Leg­is­la­tors — and, if nec­es­sary, Gov. Tom Wolf — must stop th­ese ill-con­ceived pieces of leg­is­la­tion be­fore they cause sub­stan­tial harm to cit­i­zens.

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