Police speak more but share less

CRIME BEAT

April 05, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

In Baltimore, the police commissioner is busy reviewing his much-maligned policy of refusing to publicly name officers who shoot people. In Richmond, federal judges concluded that a Baltimore police commander might have been unfairly disciplined for leaking to the media a report critical of cops who shot an elderly man in 2003.

The unrelated cases, stripped of legal parsing and argument, are inexorably linked under the same umbrella: what and how much citizens should know about their government.

Police leaders were angry when Michael J. Andrew leaked the memo to The Sun, which published a story in January 2004 that embarrassed the department. Andrew, then in charge of the Eastern District, questioned whether police prematurely stormed an apartment and killed a man who had fatally shot his landlord during an argument over a rent increase.

It is just the kind of shooting that seems justified and could easily escape public scrutiny and outrage. But Andrew argued that tactical officers "had not exhausted all peaceful non-lethal options and that the department had unnecessarily placed officers in harm's way."

The U.S. Appeals Court for the 4th Circuit said it best, writing that Andrew, who was fired, reinstated and ultimately banished to the property division, "provided his memorandum to the Baltimore Sun reporter because of his concern for public safety."

This is the kind of debate the public needs and is owed by leaders of police officers authorized to take away our liberties and, in some cases, our lives. Police can't say "trust us to be accountable" and at the same time punish a veteran cop for holding them to that standard.

And back when Andrew spoke out, city police were much more accessible to the press. Now, the department is in a virtual media lockdown, requiring spokespeople to accompany reporters on routine assignments and barring contact with officers and their supervisors without permission.

The irony is that while city police are disseminating more - albeit tightly controlled and filtered - information to the public on such Internet sites as Facebook and Twitter, they are going out of their way to prevent real discussions and disputes from reaching public ears through strict rules prohibiting access.

Andrew's memo is precisely the kind of speech city cops work overtime to suppress. But it's the kind one judge who ruled on the case insists should be part of the public debate:

"The matter about which Andrew spoke was not just an office quarrel or routine personnel action, but a question of real public importance, namely whether a police shooting of a citizen was justified and whether the investigation of that shooting was less than forthcoming," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote.

Andrew has devoted 36 years to this city's police force but has spent the past five years staving off termination, virtually imprisoned in the headquarters basement, a rank and salary of lieutenant colonel wasted keeping track of desk chairs and light bulbs.

Andrew sued over his treatment, but a federal judge in Baltimore threw the case out, ruling that Andrew's authorship of the memo was part of his official duties and thus he violated the department's rules by disseminating it without authorization. The Appeals Court ruled that it's not that clear-cut and sent it back to Baltimore for further review.

Wilkinson agreed with his colleagues' legal thoughts but he then exercised broad judicial license, writing a concurring opinion offering an intriguing argument: The hemorrhaging of the traditional print and broadcast media has put "informed scrutiny of the workings of government" in danger of being left to "wither on the vine."

He added, "That scrutiny is impossible without sources such as Michael Andrew," and he noted that it is "more important than ever that such sources carry the story to the reporter, because there are, sad to say, fewer shoe leather journalists to ferret the story out."

The judge warned that as government grows in scope and complexity, "it seems inimical to First Amendment principles to treat too summarily those who bring, often at some personal risk, its operations into public view."

Wilkinson wrote that "intense scrutiny of the inner workings of massive public bureaucracies charged with major public responsibilities is in deep trouble," and the judge hoped "the complex and powerful machinery of government [will] not become democracy's dark lagoon."

Increasingly, that is what the Baltimore Police Department is becoming. If the police and other institutions were as interested in accountability as they profess to be, then they'd have no problem identifying officers who use deadly force, and Andrew would be thanked for trying to make the department better instead of vilified by what is now three police administrations spending our money to try to retroactively shut him up.

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