Let the sun shine on open government

It’s Sunshine Week, the annual event held to “promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy.”

Sunshine Week is a nationwide initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors. While the seven-day campaign began in 2005, its roots go back to 2002 when journalists in Florida were fighting attempts to enact massive exemptions to that state’s public record laws.

Why is Sunshine Week important? Simply put, citizens of this country have a right to know how decisions are reached by the officials representing them, all the way from Pennsylvania Avenue down to Main Street. In many cases that knowledge keys on access to records of deliberations and meetings.

It’s about accountability.

If the sheer moral aspect of expecting such accountability isn’t enough, we’ll appeal to baser instincts: The decisions those leaders make affect your life.

And you’re paying the salaries of those leaders through your taxes.

They’re your servants, not the other way around.

As such, you have a right to know what they’re up to. This isn’t a conservative issue, or liberal, or libertarian. It’s everyone’s issue.

If we know what leaders are up to, they’re far less likely to be up to no good. Judge Louis Brandeis framed the issue well when he said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The sunlight/policeman analogy hits home in these parts in that it sums up the controversy surrounding the biggest story of the year thus far: the Feb. 28 release of a video that showed Asheville Police Department Officer Chris Hickman beating and tasering an Asheville man following an escalation in the wake of a man who was stopped for alleged jaywalking.

The affair highlights a serious flaw in North Carolina law, which does not regard police bodycam video as a public record. If you’re someone who appears on such footage you can request access to look at it, but to get the footage released you’ll need a court order.

That serves neither the public nor law enforcement well, and the Asheville incident is a textbook case of that.

The incident involving Hickman occurred on Aug. 25, 2017. The bodycam video was reviewed by Asheville’s police chief the following day; the officer’s badge and sidearm were taken from him. An internal investigation occurred, and the officer resigned shortly before the chief was ready to fire him.

That was in January, more than 130 days after the incident occurred.

The public had no idea.

In fact, it would still have no idea if someone hadn’t broken the law and leaked the video to the Asheville Citizen-Times, which broke the story on Feb. 28.

The value of bodycam video is that it can bring rogue officers to justice, but also that it can exonerate officers from accusations at the hands of rogue citizens.

That is, if it’s public record.

This case is at best a public relations disaster for the APD. With a lack of sunshine, rumors are flying wild in the public regarding what happened regarding the investigation, and with a lack of sunshine questions are flying regarding whether the public would’ve heard about this case at all were it not for the leak.
The FBI has taken an interest in the matter.
The APD may be being treated unfairly in the court of public opinion; we just don’t know. We do know it feels like a cover-up occurred in many corners of the community.
In the end, it’s safe to say the whole affair could have been prevented if North Carolina had written its law in a more sensible fashion. Certainly, bodycam footage shouldn’t be released in an indiscriminate manner.
But this case vividly illustrates that it needs to be public record.
Otherwise, what’s the point in having it at all?

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