A brief argument for transparency

Updated

First, let it be known that I and most people support the local police. They have a tough job, and, on the whole, do it well. This isn’t about what they do on the street.

This is about governments being transparent…and what happens when they aren’t.

Exhibit 1: Ferguson, Mo., where police decline to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting death of a Ferguson citizen. The police and District Attorney also decline to discuss details of a planned investigation. Protests ensue, police are threatened and attacked, police respond with tear gas, shooting dummy bullets into the crowd and arrests. Damn.

Exhibit 2: Raleigh, N.C., where the News & Observer reports that “Gov. Pat McCrory failed to disclose his ownership of Duke Energy stock this year in two state ethics filings and sold the stock after a torrent of bad publicity about the company’s coal-ash spill, the governor’s office acknowledged Wednesday.”

Exhibit 3: Greensboro, N.C., where a police officer shot and killed a Vietnamese immigrant who approached him with a knife and ignored his orders to stop. The incident occurred in March, the department and the SBI investigated and the officer returned to duty in May. But police declined to release details of the shooting or its investigation. Finally, on July 30, the assistant district attorney discussed the shooting with the news media.

Obviously, Ferguson is the most urgent problem. No one knows if more police transparency would have prevented the violence and arrests. But I believe that more openness about what happened and what the police planned to do about it would have calmed the city. Information is power. When I have it and won’t give it to you, it signals that I don’t trust you to know what to do with it. In turn, it erodes your trust in me.

No question that government transparency is complicated. A lot of moving parts. Delicate balance of public records with the right to privacy. Will information damage a criminal investigation? But the inclination should always be to release information. The discussion should revolved around this: “We work for the people. This is being done in their name for their benefit. Why shouldn’t we release the information?”

Most crisis management experts advise transparency rather than secrecy. And as a practical matter, details eventually come out. I heard on the news that many citizens of Ferguson know the name of the officer involved in the shooting. Or they think they do. How can that certainty/uncertainty be good?

This excellent first-person piece in the New Yorker doesn’t suggest that transparency was a guiding principle: “Police, some outfitted in riot gear, others in military fatigues, barricaded the streets. At least one of them draped a black bandana over his face; others covered their badges.” 

From a good New York Times story that discusses the issue: “Mr. Harris said that while it was understandable that police officials would try to protect their officers from threats and unfair accusations, silence also had its risks. ‘This case is not being tried yet, but the narrative is being forged in the public arena,’ he said of the Ferguson shooting. ‘When that goes on, information is put out selectively and withheld selectively.’

“’There is real danger in that,’ he said, ‘because ultimately law enforcement depends on the trust of the people they serve.’”

It is difficult to regain trust once you lose it.

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