Monday, January 22, 2007

Privacy Must Give Way To Public Interest in Police Cases

The L.A. Times today runs on its Op-Ed Page an article by Gary Ingemunson, a counsel for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, contending that the privacy concerns of police officers must trump the public right to know about proceedings in police misconduct investigations.

A lawyer will argue anything, if he's paid to do so, and Ingemunson has, presumably, been well paid to present this point of view.

But despite the State Supreme Court's ruling in the Copley case, and its exaggeration by Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, when he advised the Los Angeles Police Department to close all hearings into shootings by problem officers, the fact is that in the public interest in Los Angeles, we cannot afford to let police actions escape public scrutiny.

As the Christopher Commission and other inquiries into the matter have shown time and again, there is a crisis in this city in the way errant officers often open fire, killing or wounding, minority youths who may have committed transgressions but not ones deserving death. On many occasions, these shootings are unjustified, and the officers who commit them do not belong on the police force.

The effect of keeping disciplinary records and proceedings secret is that officers are getting away with severe misconduct. The record shows we simply cannot rely on the LAPD to police itself. Too often, the LAPD has proven itself insensitive to its own transgressions.

When someone joins the police force, he or she should be agreeing to have proceedings regarding his conduct open to press coverage and public knowledge. That does not mean divulging his or her home address or telephone number. But it does mean that reporters, like the Los Angeles Times' Scott Glover or Matt Lait, attend hearings into police shooting cases and write about the evidence regarding them.

In recent weeks, both the New York Times and L.A. Times have had lengthy articles about ethnic tensions in Los Angeles, and, specifically, clashes between black and Latino gangs. The number of crimes is up, and relations between the two groups deteriorating.

It is all the more important then to be certain that the police are operating properly in dealing with the incidents that occur, that when they are shooting, the shootings are justified. There is no way this can be done without opening the hearings. Not opening them can only exacerbate feelings in the minority communities (which, now, are, combined a majority of Los Angeles' population), and lead to a loss of public confidence in law enforcement. That consideration must trump the rights of privacy of officers.



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