Public’s right to know should be valued

Monday, December 8, 2014

By Josh Moon

Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

(TNS)

Dec. 03–One of the most disputed and discussed parts of the killing of Michael Brown inFerguson, Mo., has been over the final, fatal gunshot from police officer Darren Wilson.That shot was to the top of Brown’s head. Wilson supporters claim it proves Brown was charging, head down.

Brown Family supporters claim the shot was fired as Brown, already hit by five other bullets, was falling to the ground.

The witnesses offered conflicting testimony, although most provided details that aligned with the latter theory.

It’s likely we’ll never know for sure. But we would if Wilson had been wearing a body camera.

There would likely be no riots. There would likely be far fewer problems in Ferguson between police and residents.

If only the cops there had been like cops here. In Prattville, officers have been wearing body cameras for several years. Montgomery County

Sheriff’s deputies will begin wearing cameras next year. And the Montgomery Police

Department will start equipping its officers with cameras as soon as it raises the funds.Good for all of you. This is a win all the way around.

These tiny cameras don’t restrain officers in any way, but they do restrain a multitude of problems. Like frivolous lawsuits. Like bogus claims against cops. Like the questions of police misconduct.

Most importantly, these cameras can be instrumental in achieving a public’s trust in the officers who are risking their lives to protect it.

With that in mind, here’s a suggestion for local PDs and sheriffs’ offices: Make those body camera recordings available to anyone at any time. Never hide anything.

We have a bad problem in this state with public officials conducting public business in private.If you doubt that, go to a board meeting sometime — any board meeting. Listen to the discussion, or lack thereof, over important votes. It’s nonexistent.

I’ve heard board chairmen tell board members to stop discussing matters in public. I’ve watched

boards that don’t have prior committee meetings cast votes to spend hundreds of thousands of tax

dollars without a word of discussion. I’ve watched attorneys for some boards approve a private,

“executive session” for reasons that fail to meet Alabama’s Open Meetings Act standards. And it happens all the time.

The same goes for limiting access to public documents — there should be none.

But there is. Try to get information out of the University of Alabama or Auburn University sometime. A fewyears ago, I filed an Alabama Open Records Act request with all public universities in the state requesting the amount of painkillers — specifically the non-narcotic drug Toradol — they gave to student-athletes.

Troy University responded almost immediately with the information requested. The Alabama system declined it, citing student privacy laws, despite the fact that the request — and a subsequent phone conversation — explained clearly that specific student info wasn’t requested. That request is still pending. It was filed in 2012.

Reporters who cover Auburn athletics say there are well over 100 requests for public information that have been outstanding for more than two years.

The Advertiser’s James Crepea filed one a few years ago requesting the costs AU paid to hire a security firm to watch over football players. It was eventually filled — five months later.

Auburn billed the Advertiser for gathering that info. It charged us for two hours of work. Two hours, five months.

This is an issue you have to care about. These people — the cops, the lawmakers, the university  employees, the board members — they all work for you.

There is no reason cops shouldn’t wear body cameras, that public meetings shouldn’t actually be held in public or that public documents shouldn’t be readily accessible to anyone in a timely matter. Ever. This is the public’s business. This is your business.

You better start caring.

Author:
By Josh Moon

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