Our view: City police must come clean on public information or risk their credibility
October 30, 2009
Stonewalling is something reporters confront all too often with government at every level. Few public agencies reveal their inner workings without a fight, and bureaucrats have a formidable arsenal of legalese and excuses that put the high school standard "the dog ate my report" to shame.
But even by the customary dodge, duck and weave of officialdom, the Baltimore Police Department may be in a class by itself. To call how they've responded lately to requests under Maryland's Public Information Act mere stonewalling is like calling China's Great Wall a trifling of masonry.
More than once, Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has spoken of the need for transparency. But his idea of transparency appears to be posting details of his choosing on Facebook and Twitter. That may be helpful, but it's hardly transparent.
On Wednesday, the management of The Baltimore Sun decided enough was enough and filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court to compel city police to start living up to the law. Waiting one year to respond to a reporter's requests for information - and then asking the request to be refiled to another individual so it can be held back all over again - just doesn't cut it.
Foot-dragging is not the only tactic the police have employed. The department has begun to charge outrageous fees that cannot be seen as reasonable attempts to recoup costs but rather as a deterrent to inspecting public records.
The city has set up a virtual tollbooth for access to public information. It is charging $80 to burn the audio of a 911 call onto a CD, which retails for about 23 cents. Photocopies cost $1 for the first page, and police reports cost $10 apiece. Moreover, the department has insisted that The Sun not be allowed first to view the records to see if reporters actually want to copy them.
Ignoring requests, delaying official responses and denying access on the thinnest of legal grounds have become standard operating procedures as well.
All of this should be of concern to city residents, not because of any inconvenience it presents for this newspaper or its employees but because these are matters in which everyone has a stake. News reporters have no special status. Everyone should have the right to inspect public records.
What has become of a three-year-old murder investigation? What is the schedule of police disciplinary hearings? What involvement have city police had in spying on death penalty opponents? What have investigations into police shootings revealed?
To answer these questions satisfactorily requires an opportunity to view reports and records the department would clearly prefer outsiders not see. Denying access for no justifiable reason (such as a threat to the integrity of an open investigation or the safety of a police officers) is unacceptable, not only because it violates the public information act but also because it causes considerable harm to the credibility of the department.
Police need the trust of the community, something that's simply not possible when information that ought to be provided routinely is denied to all. Unfortunately, Mr. Bealefeld's misguided campaign to withhold the names of police officers involved in shootings - information that was provided in the past with no apparent adverse consequence, according to the department's own reports - has steered his agency toward a "you can ask, but we won't tell" philosophy.
The city is still too dangerous a place for the department to retreat into a proverbial bunker from which only carefully censored communiques are dispatched. The dispute is surely costing more than legal fees: It suggests too much effort has gone into building walls around the department and not enough into letting in the cleansing sunshine of public scrutiny.
Readers respondA democracy depends on government openness and accountability and unfettered access to public officials and documents for the press. No police department should be exempt. I hope the Sun beats these obstructionists at their own game in the courts.
Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun(Note: Attempted to Email this editorial to a number of people and email was apparently blocked.)