Balancing the public’s right to know
In recent years, the unfortunate trend in California cites and counties, including Los Angeles, has been to deprive the public of information regarding the conduct of its police. Records and hearings that had been open for decades without harm to officers have been snapped shut, and efforts to reopen them have been thwarted by the bluster and bullying of police unions.
Now, at least one agency is moving in the other direction. In Orange County, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has begun publishing detailed findings of officer-involved shooting cases, as well as investigations into the deaths of inmates in official custody. The decision to release this information, Rackauckas said, was reached after talks with local police agencies as officials sought to reach an accord that “balances the public’s right to know the facts behind the discharge of police officers’ weapons, facts behind deaths of persons under police custody, and police officers’ legal rights and safety concerns.”
That’s precisely correct. The public’s right to monitor police should not trump all other interests — there are times when criminal charges are pending, for instance, and authorities must withhold certain information. But neither are police officers’ rights absolute. They may not engage in the public act of shooting someone and then retreat into anonymity merely because exposure might subject them to scrutiny and second-guessing. To do so only harms public confidence in police.
Rackauckas is not the only district attorney to make detailed findings public in these types of cases. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley does so too. The agencies that have resisted have been police departments, whose officials say they are hamstrung by court rulings that prevent them from releasing documents or opening hearings that might expose private matters regarding police officers. Abetted by police unions, those chiefs have simply thrown up their hands, releasing nothing at all or very little rather than searching for ways to fulfill their duty to the public through openness.
The experiences of prosecutors as they investigate cases and make their findings public — and still respect the rights of officers — should remind police chiefs that a reasonable balance is possible and should reinvigorate state lawmakers to pass legislation to open up more police disciplinary proceedings. Reflexive secrecy benefits no one; thoughtful transparency, by contrast, is in the interests of all.