The Bronx District Attorney’s Office this week released a top-secret database containing the names of law enforcement officers they don’t trust. The release of such a list is both unprecedented and controversial.
New York radio station WNYC was the first to request the records from the District Attorney, citing the Freedom of Information Act; others, news outlets such as the New York Post and Gothamist, followed suit.
The documents released include media articles and findings from judges regarding the credibility of officers. They mention illegal search of a vehicle and dishonest or substandard police work in general. These kinds of internal investigations and personnel records probably are kept by every law enforcement agency, but the names aren’t released to the public at large without proof. “I think he’s a bald-faced liar” is hardly proof.
True, not all the names have been made available – reportedly at least 21 have been redacted due to privacy restrictions – but law enforcement officers say the public release of the documents before due process has been served is unwise.
Releasing the records means the identified NYPD officers have zero credibility in the eyes of the public whom they serve. The officers listed on the now-public database have no chance at a just disposition to their own cases. And, possibly even worse, ongoing prosecutions and past convictions in cases they have already worked could be thrown out.
Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Andrew Stengel, who is suing for a copy of the list sans redactions, doesn’t care about that.
“The public’s right to know is paramount.”
As a former crime beat reporter, I had the unfortunate assignment of covering the investigation of a police chief. His case was long, drawn-out, and lost before he even went to court: He was already tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.
It was heartbreaking to see the chief’s reputation destroyed in our community before any proof of guilt was provided. Beyond that, the public witch hunt created a rift between the police department at that time and the citizens they served and protected.
I can see both sides of the issue. Yes, the public – via the media – has the right to know. But I tend to agree with the cops on this one.
Don’t misunderstand me – transparency and accountability are essential parts of law enforcement. But, while the Act is meant to ensure informed citizens, I have a problem with the way it is being used. Disclosing names of law enforcement officers who are still serving their community does them, and the public, a great disservice. What harm would it do to wait for evidence? If the officers are guilty of misconduct – or worse – then, by all means, tell it like it is.
But until then…
As a journalist, there is such a thing as discretion. Timing. Just because you have lawful access to regrettable information about a public servant does not mean you need to shout it from the rooftops as soon as you obtain it. Otherwise you forget that you, too, serve the public.