Protect our rights, not just our safety

Charlotte's elected and police officials got busy last week planning for the tens of thousands of visitors who will pull up in our driveway for September's Democratic National Convention. Specifically, the City Council and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police turned their focus to protecting the public from those who might want to overstep their right to protest - or worse.

That preparation is a good thing. Although recent convention hosts have been spared large-scale incidents, cities need to plan for the possibility, as we've advocated.

But let's not get carried away about it.

CMPD and the council have shown a troubling inclination lately toward giving into anxiety about the worst that could happen in September, rather than finding the balance it needs between vigilance and openness.

Last week, CMPD declined to tell the Observer what it plans to buy with up to $25 million from a federal security grant for the convention. Other cities, including 2012 Republican National Convention host Tampa, have made that information public, but CMPD apparently thinks doing so is akin to giving our nuclear codes to the Russians. "All of that speaks to our ops plans, our strategy," said CMPD deputy chief Harold Medlock, explaining his department's sealed lips.

That's troubling, and it's made more so by the other convention-week liberties given to the force last week by the City Council. In a 10-1 vote Monday, the council prohibited items like body armor, pipes, mace or pepper spray during the DNC - all appropriate items to ban - but also prohibited people from carrying backpacks, satchels or coolers if police believed they are being used to carry weapons.

This could open the door to innocent bystanders having to hand over bags or being detained in a police sweep or dragnet. Medlock said officers will receive extensive training before the DNC, but given their superiors' disregard for public transparency, we're not quite ready to blindly trust that officers won't also wrongly err on the side of safety over individual rights.

Also worrisome: The council voted Monday to give the city manager the power to apply the same rules during other events in the city deemed "extraordinary." The council would have no say over such decisions, which probably just saves a step, as council members have already shown they're not very clear-headed about such matters. A year ago, in the wake of the city getting the DNC, the council voted to give City Manager Curt Walton the authority to approve DNC contracts, including police purchases, without having to tell the council.

That vote happened in closed session at a 2011 retreat, the Observer reported. Some council members, given the choice last week to look foolish for voting away their supervisory powers, or silly for not remembering doing so, chose silly. Council member Warren Cooksey at least seems to regret that decision and may request the manager give updates on purchases. City Attorney Bob Hagemann initially said that information is public, then later deferred to CMPD's discomfort.

We understand that it's natural, when planning for the bad things that can happen to your city, to hunker down and ammo up with regulations and equipment. We also get that you don't necessarily want to let potential lawbreakers in on how you're going to catch them. But other cities have managed, without regret, to inform citizens what's being done to protect them, and the public has the right to know what guidelines the city will follow in applying their strategy and equipment.

We hope that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police will decide to respect the law - not just enforce it - by being more transparent. That's how you build the trust you need with a public that wants its safety, and its rights, protected.