Transparency and open records need to be state priority

ECM Editorial Board

Technology has changed just about every aspect of modern-day life.

Social media connects us instantly to hundreds or thousands of people. Many individuals sift through hundreds of email messages each workday. Most of us carry high quality cameras in our pocket or purse wherever we go. We can shoot HD video with the push of a button.

These tremendous changes in technology have also had a profound effect on our governmental bodies and officials — perhaps most notably upon our law enforcement agencies.

Many police officers wear body cameras that can record everything he or she sees in the course of the day. Most police cars are equipped with some type of dashboard camera that can record a traffic stop or any other situation.

These videos can prove guilt or innocence, often help police track down a perpetrator and also prove to the public that the police officer acted appropriately in a very volatile situation. These videos can also show the opposite – an officer overreacting to an individual or in the worst cases, a suspect being beaten or shot to death with little provocation.

It is no surprise access to video is being debated throughout the country. In Minnesota, legislation passed in 2016 sets strict limitations on who can access police body camera video and gives the public only certain situations in which to obtain video footage. Don Gemberling, who managed the state’s Data Practices Act for 30 years and is now with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, explained recently to the ECM Editorial Board that the law classifies all body camera data as “private” unless it shows police actions that caused substantial bodily harm or when an officer while on duty discharged a firearm. Individuals would have some access if they were the subject of the video.

In another recent local government decision, Hennepin County has set a “destroy by” date on emails. Some have set that timeline for 30 or 60 days and have directed their technology departments to create “auto-deletes” for email accounts.

We find these decisions concerning and question if they are in the best interest of the public.

In many well-known police shooting cases, a quick release of the accompanying video would have ended speculation. We believe the Chicago police hurt themselves more by holding for over a year a video in which a teenager was shot. The time delays only served to heighten the anger and distrust within the community.

The same could be said for the shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. While the video is unclear, it still shows the volatility of the situation, much of it caused by Clark in the first place.

As for emails, we understand that local government employees process thousands and even hundreds of thousands of emails in the course of a month. A large majority of those messages are routine and probably downright boring. Yet, some contain important pieces of information – from purchasing quotes, to background debate on tough issues, to decisions being made and justified.

We reiterate a cry the press has made for centuries: The people’s business needs to be completed in public. Just as city council meetings need to be open to the public, police records (including video), email exchanges among government officials and court documents need to be available for scrutiny by the public and the press.

We realize that the proliferation of “messages” – from Twitter, to email to internet content – is massive and a difficult task to manage. We also understand that police body camera content can include portions that should not be made public – images of a child who is victim of a parental beating, a woman who has just reported a domestic violence incident, or the innocent person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time when a police raid was conducted. We also agree that protecting a victim is always imperative.

As our local, state and national leaders work through many of these issues, we implore our lawmakers to place the public’s right to know at the top of the priority list.

Our democracy and our freedoms are founded in a commitment to open government and open law enforcement.

Long ago Patrick Henry said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Openness and transparency ensures our liberties.

Our plea to all of our lawmakers and decision-makers is to remember that it is the people of our great country who always deserve the right to know, and it is those people who should always be first and foremost when public records are involved.

— An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board