Dec 10, 2006

Senate strikes a blow for secrecy in government and less accountability with SB 647

Last week the Michigan Senate struck a blow for secrecy, less accountability and keeping information from the public with passage of Senate Bill 647 that shields police statements made in internal investigations from being made public.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 30-7, and it could be voted on by the House in the last three session days this week before the new members are seated next year. Our Senator, Valde Garcia, voted for covering up possible police corruption. This bill is simply bad policy, and it cuts against the trend of openness and transparency in government.

According to a recent editorial in the Lansing State Journal, 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?

They have some very powerful tools ordinary citizens don’t have, such as taking away someone’s freedom and shooting them, but this bill gives them less accountability.

The Michigan Press Association, the LSJ and the Livingston County Daily Press and Argus are just a few of the news organizations that have come out against this assault on sunshine laws and accountability.

Newspapers have editorialized against the bill sponsored by Sen. Alan Sanborn, R-Richmond. They say it will keep the public from knowing what officers being investigated have said and could possibly be used to cover up police wrongdoing. They are correct.

Here’s a scenario provided by the MPA, “Here is an analogy about how the bill would effect everyday citizens: Say you are driving along and a police car shoots out of a driveway and clips the back of your car. The officer, who has a history of traffic accidents and fears the consequence of another, gives you a ticket for reckless driving. You're steamed, and file a complaint with the department which conducts an investigation and decides to do nothing. Under current law, you can find out exactly what the officer said. But with the passage of SB 647, you lose this right.
Was the testimony truthful? You'll never know.”

Any journalist who has tried to get information from a police agency knows that if they don’t want you to have information you simply won’t get it, and this gives them another tool to legally do it. We have given police officers a huge public trust, and 99 percent of them are hardworking, honest men and women. But this bill protects the 1 percent minority who may be bad apples from public scrutiny.

This bill needs to die on the House floor next week, and if it makes it to a vote, ask your Representative to cast a vote for transparency, openness in government and accountability and vote no on SB 647.

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