Civil Liberties

The Opaque Blue Line


The Burlington Police Department's online transparency portal features a telling quote from political and legal theorist Jeremy Waldron: "In a democracy, the accountable agents of the people owe the people an account of what they have been doing, and a refusal to provide this is simple insolence." In that spirit, the portal is a model for proactive transparency, giving quick links to raw data and quarterly reports on how, when, and where police have used force.

Several hundred miles south of the sleepy capital of Vermont, the country's largest police force is providing a model for insolence. The 35,000-strong New York City Police Department (NYPD) is one of the most stubbornly opaque law enforcement agencies in the country. It recently rejected a request by the New York Daily News for records of the public trial of an officer charged with manslaughter, citing officer privacy.

Most of the 18,000 police departments across the country fall somewhere between Burlington and the NYPD when it comes to transparency. The inconsistent and gap-filled data that result, and the lack of any meaningful punishment for such official insolence, are a serious roadblock to understanding how policing works and doesn't work in America.

Take a simple example: Each police department has a set of directives covering everything from how a cop should handle encounters with a stray dog to when officers can pull their guns. Last year, I started a project to compile these operating procedures from the largest departments around the country.

The task was more difficult than I expected. Police departments in 13 of the 25 largest U.S. cities did not post their procedures online. The Detroit Police Department rejected a public records request for its manual altogether, saying it was exempt from disclosure under Michigan's public records law.

How about the number of people police shoot every year? National use-of-force statistics are based on voluntary self-reporting by departments, which makes them suspect. Investigations by The Washington Post and The Guardian have revealed that, while the FBI reported only 444 fatal shootings by police in 2014, the actual number was likely more than 1,000.

According to a January survey by Pew, just 14 percent of police officers said they thought the general public understood the risks they face on the job. Well, the public doesn't trust or understand a government that won't conduct its business in the open, for the same reason police don't trust a suspect who keeps his hands in his pockets. If police departments want to earn back some of the trust they've lost, they need to embrace transparency.