from the and-all-it-took-was-an-outside-investigation dept
There's not much information symmetry when it comes to the public and their public servants. The public is routinely required to turn over all sorts of personal information, but their governments are rarely willing to return the favor. In particular, police departments tend to be very tight-lipped when it comes to details of officer misconduct or abuse. Most departments are more than willing to provide in-depth crime stats detailing wrongdoing by citizens, but when asked to turn the magnifying glass on themselves, the details provided are, at best, questionable.
We'll almost always know when police officers are shot at, but without issuing a deluge of FOIA requests, we'll never really know how often police officers shot at citizens. Nearly every police website contains a link to a memorial page dedicated to officers killed in the line of duty, but it takes crowdsourced, completely independent efforts to put together statistics on citizens killed by police officers.
The US Attorney's office is supposed to be gathering statistics on excessive force but, for the most part, it has completely washed its hands of this duty. It has allowed a mandatory requirement to become completely voluntary, with law enforcement agencies who do bother to participate providing incomplete and questionable statistics.
The cities that oversee these agencies aren't much better at demanding accountability -- even cities who spend millions of dollars every year paying settlements to citizens harmed by police misconduct and abuse. Worse, cities who do have plenty of evidence that points to a culture of abuse within their law enforcement agencies are willing to spend millions of tax dollars fighting to keep this documentation secret.
The city of Baltimore is looking to become the exception to the rule.
Baltimore officials will begin this month posting the outcomes of all civil lawsuits alleging police brutality and will reconsider their policy of requiring plaintiffs to keep silent after settlements are reached…This new openness appears to have been prompted by the Baltimore Sun's investigation of the city's police force.
City Solicitor George Nilson, who enacted the new policy regarding police settlements and court judgments, said officials also would seek to provide increased training for officers who are most often cited in lawsuits.
Nilson said the moves were made in response to The Sun investigation, which showed the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.While this is a good move on the city's part, the fact that it took an outside investigation to force this openness is still somewhat disheartening. That the city seemed unaware of how much it was spending to settle police-related lawsuits is disheartening as well. This doesn't say much for the city's financial oversight. Nor does it say much for police oversight, as the report notes that the PD's internal tracking of officers accused of misconduct and abuse is just as lax. Apparently, no one in either group had any idea how much was being spent or how many repeat offenders were involved until the Baltimore Sun pointed it out.
This new database, which will be publicly accessible, adds more transparency to the police department and the city itself.
And there's even more transparency on the way. The city council gave preliminary approval for outfitting police officers with body cameras. Baltimore's mayor, however, (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) is fighting this bill, claiming it's "illegal" -- something that seems at odds with her general push for transparency elsewhere. On the bright side, she has approved the expansion of the PD's Internal Affairs division and given the police commissioner more power to "punish rogue officers." How this will actually play out remains to be seen (expanding power within police departments usually results in more efficient wagon-circling, rather than greater accountability), but these are all moves in the right direction.
Baltimore's move towards better police accountability is one more cities should emulate. And they should do it proactively, rather than waiting for the local media to force the issue. If police departments want to foster better relationships with the public, they need to be more willing to share the details on what they've done wrong. Knowing that every abuse of power may make its way into the public eye is a useful deterrent. And if the public knows who the repeat offenders are, those on the inside can no longer claim ignorance -- which leads to better accountability.