February 16, 2010 in Opinion

Assaults don’t erase value of full disclosure

 

Another Washington policeman, state Trooper Scott Johnson, has been seriously wounded by an assailant who seems to have had no motive other than that Johnson is a uniformed law enforcement officer. A wave of such assaults has shocked the state in recent months, giving rise to a concerted legislative effort to demonstrate support for public safety personnel.

Acknowledgment of the dangerous work done by law enforcement officers is clearly in order.

At the same time, lawmakers should be discerning in the way they go about drafting laws that will govern the entire state. In some cases, the legislators in Olympia are letting their respect and appreciation take them in unwise directions.

On Saturday, for example, the House unanimously approved a measure that would add two more exemptions to Washington’s open records act. If the House Bill 1317, which now heads to the Senate, becomes law, it will continue the steady erosion that has occurred in the 30 years since state voters approved an initiative declaring they want government to operate openly.

The latest proposal would withhold a law enforcement officer’s month and year of birth and official photograph, presumably to protect police officers from retaliation by criminals. Strangely, while the specified information – which played no role in any of the recent shooting incidents – would become unavailable to the general public, representatives of the news media would still have access to it.

For that matter, so would anyone who wanted to make use of numerous Internet sites that will quickly provide such information for a modest fee.

Still, legislating a special status for the press is an odd strategy and an unacceptable precedent. Rights that were established by the people and in the people’s name should not be parceled out as selective privileges for certain institutions. Public records are public records.

It’s true that news organizations can use public records to disseminate important information in ways that individuals usually can’t. Seven years ago, reporters using the kind of records that HB1317 would conceal discovered a pattern of domestic abuse incidents involving members of the Tacoma Police Department – incidents that had been covered up within the department.

Exposing such misbehavior is one kind of accountability that open public records facilitate. Another, much less dramatic, involves an individual citizen’s ability to identify a law enforcement officer in, say, a police misconduct case.

State troopers and local police officers and sheriff’s deputies are no less deserving of public appreciation because a few rogues fall short of desirable standards of conduct. But neither should the personal sacrifice and professionalism of officers like Trooper Johnson be misused to insulate public officials from full scrutiny.

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