Dec 16, 2006

New law shields police from accountability

In what can only be described as a collective case of sticking their heads in the sand, the state House of Representatives unanimously approved Senate Bill 647 that shields police statements made in internal investigations from ever being made public. The vote was 106-0 on the last day of the session before all bills die and have to be reintroduced when the new members take office after Jan 1. Just a few more hours and this foul-smelling bill would have died again like it should have this time around.

This bill will keep the public from knowing what officers being investigated have said and could possibly be used to cover up police wrongdoing. Groups like the Michigan Press Association and other watchdog groups dedicated to bringing information to the public were against this bill. It makes you wonder who the legislature is listing to.

Any journalist or citizen who has tried to get less than flattering information from a law enforcement agency and been stonewalled by them knows there are few options for obtaining that information. Now the best, and perhaps the only, avenue available was just shut down.

It’s ironic that the former Detroit Police officer, Larry Nevers, who bashed in the head of Malice Green is in Livingston County today signing his new book. Under SB 647, the chances are pretty good this case may never have made the light of day. It seems the only time we ever hear about cases of police brutality are when they just happen to be caught on videotape. Even when they are captured by chance, police departments almost always say the force was justified. The odds are pretty good a few more incidents occur that are not caught on tape. This law will make sure we will never hear about the ones that are not caught by amateur cameraman or surveillance camera and ran non-stop on the six-o’clock news.

That’s just incidents of violence that are being shielded. What about bribery, corruption or extortion by police officers? This is not really about being anti-police. It’s about openness and transparency in government. I’m sure cases of police misconduct are rare, and 99.9 percent of police officers are honest, hard working and dedicated. But what about that .1 percent who may be dishonest and violent?

Police officers have been entrusted with some of the most powerful tools known to man; the ability to shoot and kill someone and the ability to take away their freedom. But a clerk at the Secretary of State’s office now has more accountability. Americans have the constitutional right against self-incrimination. But it doesn't apply to their jobs. If an employer suspects that there is theft in the company, it has the right to summon its workers and investigate. Employees refusing to cooperate can be dismissed. They have no special right to refuse questions about wrongdoing. Why are police officers different?

Let’s hope the Governor believes in open and transparent government, and she strikes a blow against secret government behind closed doors and vetoes this bill.

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