Many of us believe that we can ask any police officer for their name or badge number, and that a refusal to provide it is a violation of the law. We are often outraged when officers conceal their identities, especially when they are suspected of wrongdoing. But even when policy or legislation mandates that they disclose, officers rarely receive punishment if they fail to do so.
Depending on your jurisdiction, which could be city, college, county, or state, officers may have no obligation to wear identification at all, let alone disclose it on request. Moreover, departmental policies that do require identification often allow broad discretion for an officer, or commanders, to suspend the rule if they experience a threat, be it a present danger or existential, such as someone later using that information to harass.
Troy Payne, an assistant professor of justice at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, notes that there are about 18,000 local law-enforcement agencies in the US, all of which operate independently.
"Other than civil liability, after a civil-rights lawsuit, almost all police activity is governed by their own policies and their ability to enforce their policies," Payne said. Some policies and ideas, in model form, come from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. (The IACP did not reply to a request for an interview.)
A typical policy is found in the Seattle Police Department's manual:
Employees shall provide their name and Department serial number verbally, or in writing if requested.
Employees may use a Department-issued business card that contains their name and serial number to satisfy the request for the information.
Employees shall also show their department identification card and badge (sworn) when specifically requested to do so.
Exception: Employees are not required to immediately identify
- An investigation is jeopardized
- A police function is hindered
- There is a safety consideration
Summarized, there's an affirmative right for anyone to demand a police officer's information, but the officer has many reasons to deny this, and there's no specific repercussion in the rules. Failure to comply would fall under general disciplinary guidelines.
But a broad rule makes it seemingly unlikely that an officer would face a consequence:
Employees are authorized and expected to use discretion in a reasonable manner consistent with the mission of the Department and duties of their office and assignment.
Boing Boing checked the policies of dozens of major departments in America, as well as Ferguson, St. Louis, and St. Louis County in Missouri, and you can see a selection of policies in the sidebar below.
Anchorage Police Department Regulations and Procedures Manual, 1.03.005I, 2009
Employees while on official business shall upon request immediately identify themselves by giving their name, rank, and DSN, and by displaying their badge or official credentials unless such action is likely to jeopardize successful completion of a police assignment. This information will be produced in a professional and courteous manner.
Los Angeles CA
2014 1st Quarter Los Angeles Police Department Manual, 603.20, 2014
On-duty employees shall have their Department-issued identification card in their immediate possession. Anytime a person requests to verify an employee's status as a Department employee, the employee shall present the identification card. Exception: Officers working an undercover assignment, in which their identification as a law enforcement officer would hinder their investigation or their safety, are not required to have the identification card in their immediate possession. Generally, this does not include plain clothes assignments conducting follow-up investigations.
RULES AND REGULATIONS OF THE CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT, Article V: Rules of Conduct, 2011
Prohibited acts include: … Rule 37 Failure of a member, whether on or off duty, to correctly identify himself by giving his name, rank and star number when so requested by other members of the Department or by a private citizen.
Phoenix Police Department OPERATIONS ORDERS, 3.13.5P, 2013
Employees will courteously supply their name, serial number, or A (Adam) number when requested to do so by any person, whether on or off duty in a police capacity.
San Jose CA
San Jose Police Department Policies, Rules, Procedures; Public Version, C 1409, 2014
Consistent with officer safety and protection of public, department members, while acting in an official capacity, will supply their name, rank and position, and similar identifying information in a professional manner to any person who may inquire. Officers will identify themselves, when requested, by using an Incident Card (Form 200-45a) or Department approved business card.
Austin Police Department Policy Manual, 900.4.4, 2013
(a) Unless doing so would jeopardize an undercover officer or a covert operation, employees will furnish the name and identification number of any employee, including themselves, to any person requesting such information regarding matters in which the employee was acting in an official capacity. Names of employees will be given in sufficient form to fully identify the employee. (b) Sworn employees taking police action while not in uniform will, as soon as possible, display their police badge or APD ID and state the purpose for taking police action. (c) Employees will provide the name and business telephone number of their immediate supervisor upon request by any person.
Columbus Police Division Directive, 1.45 B, 2014
Uniformed sworn personnel shall display their identification card to any person upon request or as soon as safe and practical.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Interactive Directives Guide, ROC 21 B, 2009
Officers will furnish their names and code numbers to any person requesting that information when they are on duty or presenting themselves as police officers, except when the withholding of such information is necessary to the performance of police duties or is authorized by proper authority.
El Paso TX
EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE POLICY AND PROCEDURE MANUAL, IV A 19, 2014
Employees or members will politely give their name and other pertinent identifying information to violators or other persons requesting it, unless such action may jeopardize the Sheriff's Office mission. This includes showing citizens official photo identification cards upon request. Identification cards will not be relinquished to the control of the citizen requesting to see the card. Business cards are provided by the Sheriff's Office and will be provided as appropriate for a situation of this type.
DENVER POLICE DEPARTMENT OPERATIONS MANUAL, RR-129, 2014
When a reasonable request is made for an officer's name, badge number or assignment, the officer shall provide a business card or the information in writing to any violator or person, unless such action is likely to jeopardize the successful completion of a police assignment. Business cards are required to be provided, without being asked, to any person that an officer has detained in a traffic stop if that person is not cited or arrested. Refer to OMS 116.32(5) for more information.
Written Directives: General Orders, GO-PER-201.26, C, 1, e, 2011
When requested to do so, members shall give their first and last name and badge numbers in a respectful and polite manner.
Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures, Rule 102 Sect. 20, 2010
General Law, Chapter 41, Section 98D, requires every officer to carry his identification card with photograph and exhibit this card upon a lawful request for purposes of identification. Any officer, acting in his official capacity, shall give his name, rank and badge number, in a civil manner to any person who may inquire unless he is engaged in an undercover police operation and his physical safety or the police operation would be jeopardized by his making such identification. Civilian employees, while engaged in their Departmental duties, shall identify themselves in a civil manner to any person who may inquire as to their identity and status within the Department.
New York City NY
Patrol Guide, 203-09 Public Contact – General, 2005
1. Courteously and clearly state your rank, name, shield number and command, or otherwise provide them, to anyone who requests you to do so. Allow the person ample time to note this information.
Police Department's Code of Conduct
The name tag will be worn on both the uniform shirt and jacket … The name tag shall consist of the officer's first initial and his last name
Payne says that despite the seeming "benign" nature of the requirement to respond to a request for ID or display it, there's no path to make it mandatory. It's not a constitutional issue, he notes, and the federal government has no basis on which it can demand thousands of agencies meet any specific guidelines.
Payne says, based on his work with (but not employed by) many forces, that there's a persistent attitude among officers and chiefs that police will be targeted after enforcement situations, like protests, no matter their behavior. This is often summarized as, he says, in terms of hidden danger: "It's not about the average protester so much as agents of chaos that may be hiding inside the legitimate protest movement."
We heard this quite a bit in Ferguson, and it's a typical statement: that "anarchists" or other parties infiltrate or provoke rallies and protests, and follow up with threats or violence against officers and their families.
It's a reason police prefer to wear balaclavas and other face-obscuring shields, too, to let themselves be anonymous. In smaller towns, like Ferguson, the measures are particularly absurd, because the officers can be easy to identify later.
Even on larger forces, at events where many photos and video recordings are captured, it's still likely an officer could be identified in the future.
In reality, it's hard to find stories of officers being targeted outside of an interaction while on the job.
In past years, when organized crime violence was more significant, officers faced a more serious danger of being gunned down by mobsters. And there are many instances, including the two officers killed in December in New York and four officers killed near Seattle in 2009, in which someone specifically hunts down officers on duty and shoots them. In 2013, 126 officers in the US died in the line of duty, 49 were in traffic accidents.
That's out of about 900,000 officers. Being a cop is not in the top 10 most dangerous jobs — truckers have a fatality rate twice as high. This, however, doesn't include non-fatal violence, threats, or other issues related to harassment of police. (Though whenever an officer is threatened or doxed online, the response is immediate and severe.)
But in the field, if commanders believe there's a potential threat, they'll allow covering up nametags and badges, and allow officers to refuse to respond to requests for identification. There's no discipline if a commander allows it or requires it, and even if officers hide their identity, there's very little chance of subsequent repercussions.
There's also the very real issue that in an emerging situation, no matter the cause or escalation, an officer should be focused on that, rather than responding to identification requests — although they wouldn't have to respond if their ID was visible. Apparent anonymity may increase the likelihood of violence, both by officers who believe they can't be identified and those the officers are interacting with, who may regard anonymous, masked police as impersonal targets.
But hiding ID is also, frankly, a tactic intended to deter criminal charges and lawsuits against officers. If there's no way to prove which officer was involved, Payne says, legal action can be harder to target against a force willing to maintain the infamous Blue Wall of Silence.
"If an officer engages in extra-legal force, it's very difficult for the victim of that force to sue," Payne said.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued 22 police departments in the last five years over civil-rights issues, often related to excessive force, and has five that remain under consent decrees: Albuquerque, Detroit, Portland (Oregon), New Orleans, and Seattle.
During the height of the Ferguson protests, the DOJ warned officers in that city twice about identification. "The failure to wear name plates conveys a message to community members that, through anonymity, officers may seek to act with impunity," a letter from the DOJ said. A second letter reiterated it: "The practice of not wearing, or obscuring, name plates violates your own department's policies, which we advised you earlier this week when we requested that you end the practice immediately."
The DOJ didn't respond to a request for comment on ID requirements.
The DOJ could pursue action against Ferguson and other forces in which the lack of compliance to the department's own policies would be cited, and used as part of hammering out a consent order, which would include sanctions for violations. Outside of that, Payne says, "there's not a mechanism for the federal government to force local law enforcement agencies to do anything; they can tie it to purse strings, but that's about it" for providing federal funds for local projects.
In sum, there's little chance that an officer refusing to identity himself or herself will face punishment; there are legal and other advantages for hiding ID during police actions; and the DOJ has only the blunt instrument of a lawsuit and a consent decree to enforce specific policies.
Even federal legislation might not address it, because most departments already have a policy that ostensibly embodies what a national law would likely demand. It's not only the policy that matters, but the will to enforce it. Police chiefs and sheriffs have to be willing to make displaying and providing identification a baseline part of policing, only allowing exceptions in extreme, well-defined circumstances. Specific disciplinary responses, applied uniformly, are an essential part of building trust.
This is unlikely, however. Police unions tightly control the discipline process in most jurisdictions, and fight any attempt to impose even the most minor penalties for even the most major misconduct.
In our imperfect democracy, the watchmen can't be watched, because we often don't know who they are, nor have any tools to find them.
Jessica Smith contributed research and other assistance for this story