If government officials, police departments and their unions don’t get this one basic concept through their thick heads, then any hope of building or restoring trust between law enforcement and the citizens is just a pipe dream.
Anything they do, any reforms they initiate, are worthless unless they embrace the concept of sharing information about arrests, police misconduct records, body-camera and car-camera footage, incident reports and written communication between and among government officials, lawyers and the police leaders.
The citizens are tired of the blue wall that protects bad law enforcement officers at all costs, that attempts to hide or whitewash incidents between police and the public.
We suspect the many good police who are being painted with the tainted brush are tired of it, too.
That political cartoon we published a few weeks ago that got everyone upset wasn’t aimed at all police, just the handful of bad ones. But the perception, shared by many citizens, sticks to all of them.
And the less forthcoming the the police are, the more cemented that image becomes in the minds of the public.
The citizens demand transparency.
In many cases right now, from Schenectady to Rochester to all around the country, they’re not getting it.
Last week, the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit seeking to block the release of disciplinary records for Brian Pommer, the officer involved in a controversial arrest in July of burglary suspect Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud.
The Gazette has filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for the records, but has not received the documents.
While police have released body-camera footage of the arrest, both before and after the incident, they have not yet released a report bearing their conclusions.
The public should know whether this officer had previous disciplinary action taken against him and know how police handled any other complaints against him that might have been filed by citizens. Such information would provide the public with insight into whether the police contributed to this incident by allowing an officer with a history of misconduct to stay on the job.
Officers are entitled to personal privacy. But when it comes to their job performance and the response from their superiors, it should all be on the table.
Whether it’s fair or not, people are going to assume the worst as long as police keep information from them. If they did nothing wrong, then why are they hiding it, is how people will perceive it.
And as long as there are questions, progress on rebuilding the relationship between police and the public will be stalled.
In Rochester – where video showed police officers taunting a naked, unarmed, mentally disturbed, Black man during a snowy night in March – the coverup of his death has been more blatant and more disturbing.
For months after the incident, in which Daniel Prude died from a combination of PCP use and asphyxiation from an officer placing his knee on the suspect’s chest and neck area, police and city officials kept the incident a secret from the public by terming the death a drug overdose.
Even after a medical examiner pronounced the death a homicide, officials continued to keep it a secret.
The officers involved were cleared of misconduct in April, and the state attorney general’s office began investigating the incident earlier in the summer. But no mention of the incident was made public until Prude’s family released video of his death on Aug. 12.
Internal documents, reports and emails released Monday confirmed a concerted effort by police and city officials to delay the release of the body-cam footage and to keep the death a secret from the public.
If you think this is the way to build trust between any police agency and any community, you’re fooling yourself.
Throughout the country, even before the death of George Floyd, citizens and members of the media have been trying to obtain disciplinary records of officers, only to be thwarted in the courts by counter-suits from police unions and the governments that pay the officers.
Secrecy breeds mistrust. And mistrust breeds contempt.
If we’re ever going to make progress on police reform, full transparency must be the first step.