One of the most frustrating aspects of the police brutality issue is that many officers guilty of abusing their power are not held accountable. This is especially true in questionable shootings; it is rare that a law enforcement official is punished, even when video evidence reveals that the use of force was not warranted.
Many factors contribute to the lack of accountability in these scenarios, one of which involves transparency related to the past behaviors of officers. Recently, a California judge lifted a temporary seal on Orange County records of police misconduct. The state’s legislature passed a law last year requiring law enforcement agencies to make records related to police misconduct public.
California police unions oppose the law, arguing that it violates officers’ privacy rights. However, proponents of the law posit that the behavior of government officials is a matter of public interest and should be made transparent.
Violation of Privacy?
The police union’s objection to the law is that not only does it violate the constitutional right to privacy but also could subject officers to harassment or even violence. In an interview with WNYC, Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, discussed similar legislation that was passed in New York City. He explained, “That could possibly sway a jury to allow a criminal to be set free when they really shouldn’t be set free.”
The other objection to the judge’s ruling was related to the language used in the legislation. The law does not explicitly state whether it applies to records collected before the passage of the bill, or if it was meant to cover only future records.
The Public Deserves Transparency
Privacy is one of the most critical rights outlined in the Constitution because it prevents the state from prying into the lives of citizens. But the issue at hand is whether or not the public’s right to transparency in their government trumps officers’ right to privacy when it comes to the abuse of power.
While it is essential that the United States respect the privacy rights of all individuals, there is also an obligation to ensure the public is made aware when officials abuse their authority. In cases in which police misconduct is alleged, records of prior behavior are crucial to determining an informed outcome. The rights of law enforcement officials are important, but the rights of a citizen to have a fair hearing are arguably more important. Individuals working for the government must be held to a higher level of accountability — especially when they have the authority to take a life or cause other types of physical harm to a civilian.
Americans of all political stripes believe that police misconduct is a serious issue. But the focus isn’t just about preventing officers from committing these acts; it is also about ensuring that those who do overstep boundaries are held accountable. Is it possible that a defense attorney could use these records to undermine the testimony of a police officer in a way that allows a criminal to go free? Of course. But as the studies and news reports show, law enforcement officials rarely are punished for their actions.
Transparency makes for a better-behaved government. When the state cannot conceal the sins of its officials, it becomes easier for civilians affected by malfeasance to fight back and protect themselves. But if the state can keep the public in the dark about the behavior of its officials, it becomes that much easier for them to engage in tyrannical acts. As author Robert A Heinlein said:
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“Secrecy is the keystone to all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy and censorship. When any government or church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives.”