Does The Public Have The Right To Know The Names Of Officers Involved in Police-Related Deaths?

Should the public be able to know the names of officers involved police-related deaths or are they crime victims whose names should be kept confidential? 

When Brevard military veteran Gregory Edwards died after a struggle at the Brevard County Jail, the Sheriff’s Department refused to release the name of the officer who initially leg-swept Edwards to the ground on a claim that the officer was a “crime victim” whose name was confidential under Marsy’s Law.  Marsy’s Law, set forth in Art. I, § 16 of the Florida Constitution, gives Florida crime victims various rights, including the right to keep their identity confidential.  Police are not mentioned in Marsy’s Law but the police have been using this law to block public records requests that inquire about police-involved shootings.

The issue is currently in front of the Florida Supreme Court in Fla. Police Benevolent Ass’n v. City of Tallahassee, 314 So. 3d 796 (Fla. 1st DCA 2021), rvw granted No. SC21-651, 2021 Fla. LEXIS 2031, 2021 WL 6014966 (Fla. Dec. 21, 2021).  Around the time of George Floyd’s murder, Tallahassee officers were involved in two separate shootings.  The Florida Police Benevolent Association brought suit seeking an injunction to prevent the city of Tallahassee from releasing the names of the officers, arguing that they were crime victims under Marsy’s Law. The counter argument is that Marsy’s Law was never meant to prevent public scrutiny of the police by keeping officers anonymous and doing  so interferes with the right of access to public records under Art. I, § 24(a) of the Florida Constitution.  It is hoped that the Florida Supreme Court will harmonize the rights of crime victims with the public’s right to information.

However, bill SB 492 is currently pending in the Florida Senate and, if passed, it will also prevent the public from knowing the names of officers involved in shootings or police-related deaths.  The bill purports to protect officers by preventing their names from going public when they are “crime victims” and seeking leave after a police-involved death. Considering the broad interpretation that law enforcement has applied to the term “victim,” every officer involved in police-related death would be a homicide victim.  Most officers are put on leave or take leave after being involved in a death.  The practical result would be another hurdle that blocks the public from being able to scrutinize the job of law enforcement.

SB 492 is not yet law and the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling may or may not render it meaningless.  However, there is no reason to think that efforts to protect the police, despite blocking the public’s right to information, will stop anytime soon.

For more information on this and other First Amendment issues, follow Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, Florida Center for Government Accountability, The Tallahassee Democrat, or, generally, the League of Women Voters.

If you have a public records case, feel free to contact me:

Jessica J. Travis, Attorney, DefendBrevard.com, 1370 Bedford Drive, Suite 104, Melbourne, Florida, 32937, 321-728-7280, contact@DefendBrevard.com,  www.DefendBrevard.com.

If you have a public records case, do not rely on this article for legal advice.  Consult with an attorney.  March 14, 2023.