Ohio police who use deadly force are not being identified. Why the lack of transparency?
Central Ohio police officers who use deadly force on the job used to be identified to the public almost immediately through public records like police reports. But not anymore.
In July, eight police officers were involved in a shootout on I-70 near downtown Columbus. Only one was injured and is still recovering, but even the seven others were kept anonymous.
In August, Blendon Township Police shot and killed a 21-year-old pregnant shoplifting suspect. Both the officer who blocked the path of Ta'Kiya Young's vehicle and fatally shot Young and a second officer who was standing next to the vehicle were not identified.
Earlier this month, a Columbus officer shot a man experiencing a mental health crisis after he allegedly hit the officer in the face. The unnamed officer shot the man, who was barricaded in a home. The man survived his injuries.
In all three cases, the public doesn’t know the names of the officers. The police agencies maintain the officers are crime victims, and thus their identities are protected by Marsy’s Law.
What is Marsy's Law?
Marsy’s Law requires governments to hide crime victims' personal information, redact their names and even get their faces blurred from video evidence and other public records, even if they don't opt into the protections.
But the law is much more than this. It also requires due process for victims and for governments to notify victims of important hearings and if accused suspects are released or escape from prison.
The law was named for Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, who was a California college student killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. A week after Nicholas was murdered, her family encountered the accused killer in a grocery story because he was out on bail.
Since then the family has pushed for states to pass protections for crime victims and have been successful in 12 states.
Ohio's version of the constitutional amendment passed in 2017 with over 82% of Ohioans voting "yes."
Laws that enforce the provisions of the amendment from the Ohio General Assembly went into effect earlier this year that automatically opted crime victims into these privacy protections. Shortly after, the Columbus Police Department began omitting officers' identities.
Some of the original supporters of the constitutional amendment said that was not their intent when they convinced voters to approve Marsy's Law.
Original advocates of law question whether police IDs should be shielded; police defend its use.
The Ohio Crime Victims Justice Center pushed for Marsy’s Law. It’s legal director Elizabeth Well said this use of Marsy’s Law wasn’t discussed during the 2017 campaign.
“The concept that victims are responding to critical, or sorry, law enforcement responding to critical incidents would be considered victims wasn’t raised," Well said.
Well says the law was mainly intended for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
“It's hard to say that a governmental entity is a victim in the context of the entire Victims’ Rights Amendment, because all of these rights are against the government," Well said.
Marsy's Law for Ohio, the main organization behind the constitutional amendment, went further and said the right to privacy for these officers should often not supercede the public's right to know.
“When reviewing the conduct of an on-duty law enforcement officer who has used physical force, the right to privacy of their name must quickly yield to the public’s right to know," the organization said in a statement.
Police departments have taken the broad language of “privacy” provided in this law to victims of crime and used it to shield many officers’ identities since it went into effect.
Blendon Township Police justified keeping the first officer anonymous, because he was grazed by Young's vehicle, which authorities said made him a victim of assault with the vehicle. The department said it kept the second officer anonymous, because his hand was in the driver's side window when Young's car began moving.
Unless these officers choose to reveal themselves, their identity could only be revealed, if they are charged by a grand jury in relation to the incident, which is possible in the case of Ta’Kiya Young.
Columbus Fraternal Order of Police President Brian Steel said his group supports Marsy’s Law and doesn’t believe the Ohio Constitution should discriminate against a victim of a crime solely because of their profession. Steel has been a consistent face advocating for the safety of officers in Franklin County when they respond to dangerous situations.
“A felonious assault is a F1 offense. An officer shot, an officer stabbed. That is 100% a victim of a violent crime. And again, in a spirit of equity and equality, they are no different than a fireman (or) than a nurse," Steel said.
Well says there could be argument for police protecting officers’ identities, but it should be on a case-by-case basis. She questions police agencies’ blanket use of the law.
“We don't have, an opinion in the sense, like I said, that we would draw a bright line and say police can never be victims or police are always victims," Well said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio is a group that has opposed the Marsy's Law amendment from the start. ACLU's policy counsel Patrick Higgins said that since Marsy’s Law has been implemented, there has been a presumption of victimhood assumed for officers with the end result being a lack of publicly available information about who was involved with these incidents.
“It's important to think about the scariness, for lack of a better word, of a nameless, faceless state actor like we see in some of the released, redacted body cam footage taking the life of people in our communities. And I think that sends a message," Higgins said.
Higgins said it matters that police officers are acting on behalf of the state in these scenarios. He said this use of the law risks erosion of trust in the government.
Steel said if Ohio voters want the law to allow for the release of these officers' names, they should change that. But as of now, Steel says the law does not allow that and he believes it was the will of the voters for it to be this way.
Steel said he worries that if these protections are removed from police, it could extend to other professions in the public sector.
"If a firefighter or let's say a firefighter arson investigator is attacked, a firefighter medic is violently attacked. Are we going to say that Marsy's Law pertains to them or not? Again, how do you discriminate one profession against another," Steel said.
Ohio Supreme Court could hear challenge to Marsy's Law use
The Columbus Dispatch announced it filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court against the Columbus Division of Police for not releasing the names of officers in the aforementioned incidents. The complaint asks the court to make Columbus police comply with state public records law, because CPD denied the newspapers requests multiple times this year for public records citing Marsy's Law.
The Gannett-owned newspaper isn't the only organization in the U.S. challenging Marsy's Law being used in this way.
Similarly in Florida, there is a challenge to law enforcement using the law to shield officers' identities. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in late 2022 and hasn't yet ruled in the case.
Higgins said either challenge could be successful and inform how police departments in Ohio and around the country interpret these laws.
“I think we all do better as citizens and government officials when we can expect and rely on a transparent and accountable government. And I think that's at the root of a lot of this," Higgins said.
Well, of the Crime Victims Justice Center, said if there is a constitutionally sound way to change Ohio Revised Code in a manner that balances government transparency with the rights of victims, her organization could support it.