Your right to know: Raise the bar on police transparency

 

Bill Lueders

By BILL LUEDERS

Recently, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information issued a statement calling for greater transparency and accountability from law enforcement. They were joined by more than 50 groups, including the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, and the Wisconsin Transparency Project.

“Trust is a key element in police-citizen relationships. Secrecy is the enemy of trust,” the statement noted. “Effective oversight of law enforcement requires meaningfully improving the flow of information to the public, both as a matter of law and as a matter of culture.”

The police killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, among others, as well as video footage of police using excessive force in dealing with protesters, have underscored the need for changes in policing, including greater access to disciplinary records.

It is time to break down some of the barriers that prevent the public from getting a full and true picture of how police perform — sometimes laudable, sometimes not — and how government agencies respond to allegations of misconduct.

Wisconsin, according to one survey, is among just 12 states in the nation in which records of police disciplinary investigations are generally available to the public. But there are still opportunities for improvement.

For one thing, the law builds unnecessary delays into the process, to afford police officers, like all public employees, an opportunity to sue to block the release of disciplinary records. It also enables departments to deny access to records while an investigation is pending, in the absence of any proof that secrecy makes the process work better.

Early this year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a bill regarding the use of police body cameras. While it does a good job of balancing the public’s right to know against legitimate privacy interests, it still allows police agencies to withhold video of ongoing investigations, something that doesn’t happen with video taken by onlookers and not police.

That means, in some cases, the public can only see the video that it is not paying for.

The National FOIC and Brechner Center argue that every aspect of the police misconduct oversight process should be open to public scrutiny.

“Only by seeing the substance of each complaint, how it is resolved, and what consequences are imposed can the public trust that justice is being dispensed without favor,” the statement says.

“We understand the difficult challenge police officers face each day in their work. While they have a unique position in our communities, they are still public employees — but with extraordinary power to use deadly force, to search private homes, and to detain and arrest.”

Thus we should insist on maximum transparency.

Yes, there are times when police draw complaints that are unfounded and unfair. But the public should have a right to see even these, with the expectation that ordinary people can make rational judgments about their nature and how they are addressed.

We should not have to trust the police to police themselves. Trust will come only when we are allowed to see inside the process.

“Your Right to Know” is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, the editor of The Progressive, is the council’s president.

 

 

 

Comments are closed.

  • Your Right to Know: Record location fees invite abuses

    April 7th, 2021
    by

    A member of the public or representative of the press will file a request under Wisconsin’s open records law, which applies to all state and local government entities.


    Guest view: Going beyond ‘either/or’

    April 7th, 2021
    by

    I am not about to argue that we never have just two choices. We all know that some people chew ice and some don’t.


    Letter to the editor: Why don’t Rep. Oldenburg’s listening sessions include a virtual option?

    April 6th, 2021
    by

    Why is Rep. Loren Oldenburg, R-Viroqua, holding a listening session mid-weekday in a bar with no virtual option?


    Letter to the editor: Royall School Board president has lied

    March 30th, 2021
    by

    Raye Walz lied to me in writing with regard to fall sports! I was unable to attend the board meeting in the fall when this decision was made.


    Letter to the editor: Vote for Kerr for state superintendent

    March 30th, 2021
    by

    We have only one statewide race in our spring elections. This is for who leads our public education systems here in Wisconsin for the next four years.


  • Editorial cartoon

    March 30th, 2021
    by

    Guest view: Broadband for all

    March 30th, 2021
    by

    We have the opportunity to do something groundbreaking for rural Wisconsin — and here’s how we can make it happen.


    Letter to the editor: We need to teach healthy debate, reduce vitriol

    March 30th, 2021
    by

    Response to Don Foy:

    Your last sentence in your letter is, “I don’t see how a person can be an immigrant-hating, gun-waving, gay-bashing Trump supporter and call him or herself Christian.” The First Amendment gives you the right to put out that statement.


    Editorial cartoon

    March 26th, 2021
    by

    Letter to the editor: Jesus didn’t qualify ‘love your neighbor’ commandment

    March 24th, 2021
    by

    I’m usually skeptical when someone who’s not a Christian explains to someone who is what Christian behavior ought to be. It’s like a conscientious objector telling a soldier what he or she should have done in battle.


    Editorial cartoon

    March 22nd, 2021
    by

  • [Advertisement.]
  • Archives