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Police-complaint openness big part of reform

In Ohio, like most states, residents may easily access a public database of disciplinary records involving any educator licensed to teach our youth in the state of Ohio.

Same goes for medical doctors, psychologists, dentists and even lawyers who practice here.

Easy public access to this information is critical. We all need to be informed of those we trust to care for us and our children.

Yet, across America, complaints against police officers are often kept secret. There is no massive database of disciplinary records or complaints of misconduct.

Former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, well-known now for images of him pressing his knee into the neck of an arrested and face-down George Floyd who ultimately died, had more than a dozen misconduct complaints against him.

Likewise, the Associated Press reported last week, Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City officer who seized Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold, had eight. Ryan Pownall, a Philadelphia officer facing murder charges in the shooting of David Jones, had 15 over five years, the AP reported.

The public knew nothing about these complaints until the victims’ deaths.

Just like we have the right to know if our dentist has faced accusations or discipline for some egregious act, the public also should have access to information on local police officers.

So, now as communities, states and the U.S. as a whole, consider ways to reform America’s police forces, perhaps the most important thing that needs to be addressed is easing public access to complaints and / or discipline stemming from things like excessive force, harassment or other misconduct.

On the federal level, congressional reform bills from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress would make officers’ disciplinary records public and create a national database of allegations.

The idea is sound, but the process will not be simple.

It almost certainly will face challenges from police unions and their lobbyists. There will be technical challenges to work through. Each police officer follows different rules instituted and enforced locally. Likewise, each department’s labor contract has been negotiated and approved on the local level with unique caveats.

Some will argue that unfettered release of police personnel records will allow unstable people to target police officers and our families for harassment or worse. And what happens when an unsubstantiated or frivolous allegation is made?

In Ohio, police personnel files as well as brutality complaints are public record, but reputable journalists understand that this information may be frivolous and must be reported to the public with care and balance so as not to libel an officer or show him or her in a bad light, particularly before an investigation is closed.

Still, it should be reported because the public does have a right to know.

Just last week in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a sweeping package of police accountability measures, including one allowing the release of officers’ long-withheld disciplinary records.

The laws will ban police chokeholds, make it easier to sue people who call police on others without good reason, and set up a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the deaths in or after police custody. It also repealed a state law long used to block the release of police disciplinary records over concerns about officers’ privacy.

Eliminating that law will make officer complaints, transcripts and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings public for the first time in decades.

These ideas are some of the things meant by increasingly common calls for “police reform,” and, in my opinion, are a long ways better than other ridiculous calls for “defunding” or even eliminating police departments. Some, I believe, view “defunding” as a form of punishment to all police officers in the wake of George Floyd’s death, but in the end, it will end up being more of a hazard — punishment, if you will — for the residents who count on police to be there when they call 9-1-1.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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