This week, the Philadelphia Police Department publicly touted the heroism of Officer Lawrence Leissner, who got into a gun battle with the Navy Yard killer, Vincent J. Dortch.

It was an unusual event.

More often than not, the department has refused to release the names of officers who fire their guns at civilians, even when someone dies.

That has become an issue as the department has seen a surge of incidents in which officers have shot and killed civilians.

Last year, Philadelphia police killed 20 people in the city, the most since 1980. It was the most people killed by police in the 10 largest U.S. cities.

Advocates for open government and police accountability say the police should identify officers who shoot civilians, especially when it results in a death.

"These are public servants and these are deaths at the hands of public servants and the public has the right to know," said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Walker said the public needs to get more information about police shootings to find out if there is a problem with individual cases or with the department in general.

"If I were involved in a shooting today, my name would certainly be released to the public," said Robert Richards, cofounder of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University.

Capt. Benjamin Naish, spokesman for Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, yesterday said there were reasons why the department refuses to release officers' names.

Every officer who discharges a firearm is the subject of an automatic Internal Affairs investigation, Naish said. Also, the District Attorney's Office reviews all police shootings.

The law allows the department to refuse to release information about ongoing investigations and reviews of shootings by officers, Naish said.

The department has cited that right in recent months when The Inquirer requested information about police shootings. At the same time, the department has refused to identify cases where the investigations have been completed.

Naish said the department made an exception for Leissner on Wednesday "because of his heroic actions and his bravery."

Leissner drew fire and shot back at Dortch, who killed three men and critically wounded a fourth before finally shooting himself dead.

Besides attempting to obtain the names of officers involved in shootings in recent years, The Inquirer also requested the names of all people who were shot.

The Police Department refused to release those names.

George Parry, a former city prosecutor who ran the Police Misconduct Unit from 1978 to 1983, said the policy appeared to reflect a resistance by the department to oversight or outside review.

"They really don't want anyone looking over their shoulders," Parry said.

Whatever the reason, Pennsylvania's laws governing public records are so weak that police departments can choose to withhold that information, Richards said.

Walker said the ability of police to withhold basic information from the public is widespread across the country in places where open-records laws are lax and police unions are strong.

The flip side is a state such as Florida, where the personnel records of any public employee (with some restrictions) are open to the public.

"The other states [with open-records laws] are getting by. Things aren't crumbling down," said Teri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.