Cindi Ross Scoppe

How our new open records law can protect police from harm

Police and prosecutors refused for months to release the dash cam video of Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller shooting and killing 19-year-old Zachary Hammond during an attempted drug bust.
Police and prosecutors refused for months to release the dash cam video of Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller shooting and killing 19-year-old Zachary Hammond during an attempted drug bust.

YOU MIGHT have heard by now that news organizations finally convinced the Legislature to put more “open” in the state’s open records law. What you might not have heard is that those changes weren’t the most important provisions of the Freedom of Information bill lawmakers passed last month.

You might also not have heard that news organizations’ efforts actually killed that most important change last year, by hijacking it and using it as a vehicle for their priorities; fortunately, that didn’t happen this year.

There’s no question that we needed to crack down on all those state agencies and city and county governments and school districts that thumb their nose at the law that requires them to let the public see public records.

In nearly all cases, the law already required them to turn over police incident reports and documents handed out to council members at public meetings and salaries for university employees and personnel files of teachers fired for abusing students and all but a tiny fraction of other information that our state and local government employees put in writing.

But time after time, local governments and state agencies violated the spirit or even the letter of the law.

__________

Public documents becoming more public

McMaster: Public records law ‘step forward’ in transparency

Why we shouldn’t be surprised by muted reaction to Michael Slager mistrial

The most important thing prosecutors can do to restore trust in police

__________

Often, they just made up reasons the information didn’t have to be released. Or they dragged their feet, taking advantage of the fact that while the law required them to say within 15 days whether they would make information available (a requirement that was itself too often ignored), it didn’t set a deadline for actually releasing the information. Or they tried to price the public out, charging exorbitant fees for releasing documents.

When an ordinary citizen makes the request, the government’s illegal rejection usually stands, because few people are going to sue a government agency — which often has a taxpayer-funded lawyer on staff, and so doesn’t have to spend any extra money to fight and delay and delay and fight. Even newspapers usually decide it’s not worth the money to go to court.

H.3352 won’t solve all of those problems. But it does set a deadline for actually delivering the information. It does add to the list of documents that have to be available on the spot. It does require a court to rule on a lawsuit within six months, which might encourage governments to comply rather than running the clock and, if not, might at least reduce the cost of litigation. So yes, those are all good changes.

And before we talk about what’s much more important than all of that, take a moment to consider what it says about some officials’ commitment to serving the public when these changes are secondary, when there’s an even bigger abuse of the public’s right to know that the new law aims to stop.

What’s more important than these changes is public confidence in our criminal justice system, and more specifically our police. What’s more important is, in a few cases, a matter of life and death.

That public records law that is so often violated covers not just written documents but most videos — including police dash-cam videos. Some police records (written or videoed) are exempt from disclosure — primarily if they would impede an ongoing investigation or put lives in danger.

But let a police officer shoot a suspect, and even though we already know who did it (the only question is whether it was justified), police and solicitors fabricate all sorts of reasons not to release the video.

The most important part of H.3352 makes it abundantly clear that a video is a public record if it “involves an officer involved incident resulting in death, injury, property damage, or the use of deadly force.” It says such videos must be disclosed unless police convince a Circuit Court judge that they need to remain secret, in whole or in part.

That’s a huge step forward for the safety of the public and of the police, because we have seen too many times what happens when police or solicitors decide which videos are released: When the video makes police look good — or on those rare occasions when officials have decided to fire or even arrest the officer — it is made public. When it makes police look bad, it is hidden.

Unfortunately, that will still be the way it works with body-cam videos, which, under a separate law, are exempt from disclosure. Except, of course, when police or prosecutors want to release them. And we know when that will happen.

If you can think of a better way to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system, to make people doubt the official explanations when police kill people, please tell me. Because for the life of me, I can’t think of one.

Nor do I understand why all those good cops out there — the ones who aren’t too macho or trigger-happy to do the job and who would be honest if they made a mistake and shot when they shouldn’t — keep protecting and enabling that tiny number in their ranks who shoot when they shouldn’t and then lie about it.

Because those few bad cops make all the good and honest police officers look bad. And that makes their too-dangerous jobs even more dangerous.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

  Comments