A lawsuit settled on Wednesday between the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico and local news station KRQE is a victory for transparency in government. It also highlights the role of media in keeping citizens informed.
Police brutality has been a growing concern in the area, with the Albuquerque Police Department being criticized for thirty seven shootings, twenty of which were fatal, since 2010. After being prompted by local advocacy groups, the Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the APD in November of 2012. As a result of this investigation the Department of Justice found a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the department.
The city had repeatedly refused requests to provide video of Officer Jeremy Dear, who in April of 2014 fatally shot Mary Hawkes. Hawkes, aged nineteen, had been fleeing on foot while being pursued for suspected car theft. The city also refused to release correspondence between the office of the mayor and the Department of Justice concerning the terms of the settlement agreement reached at the conclusion of the civil rights investigation.
As a consequence of the lawsuit the City of Albuquerque relinquished over one thousand emails, hundreds of pages of case files, and several videos to KRQE.
This incident underscores the importance of public records in a functional democracy. An important factor in ensuring that governmental bodies work for the wellbeing of their citizens is making sure that they can be held accountable by that populace. But in order for people to hold a government body accountable, they must be aware of how it operates. By refusing to comply with requests to release information concerning police behavior, the city of Albuquerque effectively shrouded unprofessional and unconstitutional policing from the eyes of its citizens.
In a way this desire on the part of the city to keep silent is perfectly understandable. It is human nature to hide from our misdeeds to avoid bad consequences. But in fact letting this information become public is good for the city, and the Albuquerque Police Department, too. Transparency allows for communication between the city and its citizens, and accountability creates an impetus for the police department to engage in some much needed reflection and self-scrutiny, which can eventually lead to changing some of its policies and practices.
While we cannot say for certain what the reaction on the part of the people of Albuquerque will be to whatever new information comes out, it is possible that it could lead to an increase in the mistrust of the police department. That could easily make a bad situation for the city even worse. Hopefully this will ultimately result in progress towards a more effective and more transparent relationship between the Albuquerque police department and the people that they serve.