It all boils down to trust.
The relationship between police and minority communities. The relationship between government and its citizens.
All the anger and violence and protests and reaction to it all comes down to trust.
As we as a society try to address the underlying causes of racism, we also need to address the trust issue.
People feel less trusting, and therefore more resentful and angry, when government withholds information from them.
So while this latest incident of a white police officer killing an unarmed black person didn’t occur in New York, New York needs to examine its own laws and practices to ensure the public can trust that the information they’re getting regarding such matters is true, timely and complete.
That means making as much information available as possible, as quickly as possible.
One area where police and prosecutors often withhold information from the public is with the release of video taken by body cameras worn by officers and video from dash cameras on police vehicles.
These are often the only visual evidence that the citizens have as to what really happened. The alternative is taking the police and government at their word. And in this era of mistrust, it’s unfair and naive to expect the public to believe everything government says with regard to these incidents.
We understand that privacy issues come into play when officers go into people’s homes or interview sexual assault victims and witnesses. But when body cam and dash cam footage is shot in a public area, there’s no reason for law enforcement to withhold those tapes from the citizens. Even if the visual evidence is inconclusive, the public has a right to see what was captured on those cameras so they can judge for themselves.
Law enforcement also needs to release any video or audio related to such incidents captured by private citizens and businesses.
Withholding these videos only further promotes suspicion and undermines trust.
Same thing with 9-1-1 calls. New York needs to pass legislation that requires law enforcement to immediately release transcripts of 9-1-1 calls made relating to such events.
These calls can often provide first-hand accounts of what people on the scene saw for themselves. For instance, in the Minnesota case, one 9-1-1 caller described the crime George Floyd was accused of committing and his physical state at the time. If officials have to edit the caller’s name and address to ensure privacy, then so be it. But that’s it.
State lawmakers also need to amend the section of the state Freedom of Information Law that allows law enforcement to withhold any information collected as part of an ongoing investigation.
That clause has allowed law enforcement to withhold vital information from the public for months or years, even when that information would otherwise be public and even though its release would not jeopardize the criminal case.
Finally, lawmakers need to repeal Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which allows law enforcement to withhold records related to police performance evaluations.
That section these days is used to hide anything in an officer’s past that might be relevant to his conduct, and even to withhold body- and dash-cam footage that might be used in an officer’s disciplinary case.
This section has outlived its original purpose and been exploited to hide inappropriate police conduct. It needs to be repealed.
Releasing information, even information that’s uncomfortable or reveals inappropriate conduct, is better than keeping it from the citizens.
If ever we’re going to make some progress on this issue, building and restoring trust is essential to the solution.