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.
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.