By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
Much of the nation’s attention has been turned on the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., this week as civilian protesters and police officers have clashed in a hail of flash-bang grenades, tear gas and riot gear.
The protests began after a still-unnamed St. Louis County police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed and apparently walking away from the officer who pulled the trigger. (UPDATE: On Friday, St. Louis County Police said Darren Wilson was the officer who shot and killed Brown; police also claimed Brown was suspected of stealing a $48 box of cigars)
Although police have tried to protect the identity of the officers involved, they will eventually have to file a police report about the incident — and all the questionably legal incidents that have occurred in the past few days as cops have harassed, assaulted and arrested protesters. That report will be a public record and, eventually, we will know the name of the man who killed Michael Brown.
But if state Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, had his way, that would not be the case.
Roorda introduced a bill last year to amend the state’s Sunshine Law to prevent the public from obtaining “any records and documents pertaining to police shootings … if they contain the name of any officer who did the shooting.”
The only time the name of an officer would be disclosed, under Roorda’s proposal, would be if the officer ended up being charged with a crime as a result of the shooting. And given police departments’ history of protecting their own from prosecution after they injure or kill suspects, that’s certainly not a very reassuring detail.
In fact, the bill would prevent the public from knowing about police officers involved in any incident in which an individual is shot by a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether the officer was on duty.
It’s probably not too surprising that Roorda is the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association when he’s not moonlighting as a state lawmaker.
“In other words: if this bill became law, and I were an off-duty police officer in Missouri and I shot someone in the course of a confrontation, the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch basically would be high and dry in assessing records about the incident,” wrote Jonathan Peters of Columbia Journalism Review, in a June 12 post highlighting “bad ideas” in proposed state laws affecting the freedom of the press.
Peters notes the law would essentially give all police officers the privilege of discharging their weapons in public at any time without leaving any public fingerprints.
That post now seems eerily prescient, particularly in Missouri.
Roorda’s serious about this whole police-should-be-allowed-to-do-whatever-they-want thing, too. He recently told the Post-Dispatch that he, and the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, oppose the use of cameras in patrol cars to monitor police activity.
Luckily for journalists, residents of Missouri and anyone who cares about the First Amendment — basically, anyone except trigger-happy police officers — the bill hasn’t received so much as a hearing or a vote in the Missouri House.
After this week’s events in Ferguson, it’s hard to imagine it ever will.
Roorda’s office did not return calls for comment late Thursday. Calls to his cell phone were not answered or returned.
Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow @EricBoehm87 and @WatchdogORG on Twitter for more.