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To conceal identities in use-of-force cases, police argue they are victims

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Can police officers who carry out a deadly shooting be considered victims of the shooting, too? That question is at the center of a high-profile court case in Florida. The case involves a victim's rights law that is sweeping the country and how those rights can clash with police accountability. Danny Rivero from member station WLRN has more.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: Two years ago, police in Tallahassee shot and killed a Black transgender man named Tony McDade and another Black man named Wilbon Woodard. The police department ruled both shootings justified. And then something unprecedented happened. Both officers claimed they were victims of crime, and their police union sued the city to block their names from being released. That's because under a 2018 ballot amendment called Marsy's Law, people who claim they're victims of crime are given a special right to privacy.

VIRGINIA HAMRICK: The public knows the name of the deceased, but the public does not know the officer involved in that case and involved in that use of force.

RIVERO: Virginia Hamrick is a staff attorney at the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, a group that fights for government transparency. And she says the new law creates an imbalance of information. Before Marsy's Law was passed, if there was an incident involving a police officer, anyone could request a copy of the police report with the officer's name. From there, you could find that officer's disciplinary history, civilian complaints, if they've shot anyone in the past and other information. But now the names of officers are being hidden.

HAMRICK: And it just makes it harder for public oversight of policing and specifically deadly force.

RIVERO: The police union rejects the idea that it's all just a clever way to avoid public accountability. But now Hamrick's group is a party in a lawsuit arguing officers in those Tallahassee shootings should not be able to claim they're victims for things that happened on the job. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear that case in the coming months. Attorney Luke Newman represents the two Tallahassee police officers who shot and killed people while they were on the job, and Newman says Marsy's Law is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

LUKE NEWMAN: So the law defines victims as a person. It doesn't contain any exemption for a public employee, a police officer. They're still people, and they were threatened with criminal acts.

LAUREN BOOK: That was not the intention nor, in my belief, what the amendment said and not what the voters voted on.

RIVERO: Democratic State Senator Lauren Book was one of the main voices in the campaign to pass Marsy's Law, but now she says the law she supported is being misused.

BOOK: We want to stand with victims of crime, and I don't know that that extends to law enforcement, who are involved in shootings or things that happen in the course of their jobs.

RIVERO: Marsy's Law has been approved by voters in 12 states, including California, Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Not all of them are using it to protect the police, but South and North Dakota are. Janna Farley is the communications director for the ACLU of the Dakotas.

JANNA FARLEY: It sounds like a great idea when you first hear about it - the idea of, like, yeah, let's protect victims. But it's all the unintended consequences that come along with it that are problematic.

RIVERO: In Florida, police in the city of Boynton Beach used the law in December to block an officer's name from being released following a crash with their police vehicle. A 13-year-old riding a dirt bike died in that incident.

For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "SAD AMERICAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Rivero
Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.