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Front Page » February 26, 2008 » Opinion » Maintain open police records
Published 3,287 days ago

Maintain open police records

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Americans entrust the police in their communities with a great deal of power. Peace officers form the so-called thin blue line that separates an orderly society from anarchy. Anyone who has the authority to lock you up is more powerful than almost anyone else � at least in the short term.

Which, when you think about it, makes Senate Bill 260 all the more unfathomable. Sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan � the gay-baiting, evolution-theory-rejecting voice of the GOP's radical right wing � it would amend the Government Records Access and Management Act to make private all records "that disclose information relating to formal charges or disciplinary actions against a peace officer ... unless the peace officer gives written consent to classification of the document as a public record."

Let's say you are a police officer who has been charged and disciplined for inappropriate behavior. The people living and/or working in your community would want to have access to that information, given that you wear a badge, carry a gun and can arrest them. But if Buttars' bill passes the Senate, House and is signed by the governor, your dishonorable history will disappear as far as the public is concerned.

This is, as far as we're concerned, the worst example yet of lawmakers' propensity for keeping public information private. Maybe lawmakers' continued defense of their anonymity against public exposure of gift-taking from lobbyists has become so routine they are now prepared to begin cloaking misbehavior by police officers.

In what universe does this make sense? Certainly not our own. If there is one section of government that ought to be completely transparent, it's law enforcement. Making publicly available any charges of misbehavior against, or information concerning disciplinary actions involving, peace officers is a bedrock American principle. Think about it, Sen. Buttars: How would a police department effectively refute charges of corruption if an officer could, at his or her individual discretion, keep the record of their behavior private?

The answer is: The department's reputation would forever be in doubt, no matter how spurious the charge. Secrecy fosters suspicion. No police officer likes to see another punished, but they know that when information concerning the charges and disciplinary action are made publicly available, the people understand the size and scope of the problem and that it may not be emblematic of the entire department.

Or, in a worst-case scenario if Buttars' bill is made law, wider instances of corruption � say, for example, directing business to favored tow-truck companies by numerous officers � could go unnoticed by the public at large and the media who report such incidents.

Indeed, Sen. Buttars, if you want to know how fast public disapproval will descend onto the police if you make these records private, look to the way Utahns regard legislators who take gifts from lobbyists but allow their identities to be masked by loophole-filled reporting laws.

Police officers count on the public trust to do their jobs. Leave that trust intact by leaving the Government Records Access and Management Act alone. Reject SB 260. Emphatically.

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February 26, 2008
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