If you’ve got nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?
That’s usually the question that first comes to mind when public officials refuse to release information to their citizens.
It’s a matter of trust. And right now, trust in our police agencies across the nation is at a particular low point.
In the wake of the George Floyd killing, we’ve learned how police agencies have routinely covered up disciplinary issues with officers, and how officers were many times lightly punished or not punished at all for violent acts against citizens and other malfeasance like filing false reports or stealing evidence in criminal cases.
But one police agency in New York is working to reverse that mistrust. And its efforts should serve as a model for all others to follow.
In an astounding gesture of transparency virtually unheard of in government, the Police Department in Utica last week began posting on the city’s website the personnel records of all current employees.
No need to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to get the records. No appeals. No going to court. No waiting weeks or months for a reply.
It’s all right there on the website, available for any citizen to see with the click of a mouse.
They started at the top, posting 155 pages of personnel records for Police Chief Mark Williams. As of Tuesday, they’ve since added the personnel records of the deputy police chief and two officers, promising to post the records of the entire department soon.
The PDFs might include any disciplinary filings, as well as letters of praise and commendations the officer might have received, records of training and completed law enforcement course work to allow the public to know about the officer’s areas of competency, and even newspaper clippings about the individual. Personal information like medical data and addresses and phone numbers are not included.
The move coincides with state legislative action last month that made police disciplinary records available under the state Freedom of Information Law.
Chief Williams said the need to address current attitudes toward police was more of a concern than any impact this action might have on officer morale and recruitment.
Or as Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri told the Auburn Citizen, “I think this reflects the fact that we’re not afraid.”
If police agencies and other government officials want to build, rebuild and maintain the trust of their citizens, they need to stop being afraid and start acting more like this.