What’s being done for public in private?

The Observer editorial board

After a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the Observer published an op-ed from then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe.

“In building trust and communication, we strive to be as transparent as possible,” Monroe wrote. “… Transparency, trust and communication are the foundation for the constructive dialogue that we must have to address inevitable conflicts, understand each other’s point of view and learn and grow from the experience.”

That foundation is cracking.

Monroe retired nine months later, and now new questions arise about CMPD’s commitment to “transparency, trust and communication.” Chief Kerr Putney says video from officers’ body cameras makes him confident that an officer acted appropriately this month when he beat a man in the back as the man lay on the ground surrounded by seven officers.

The officer may well have been justified. The public might never have that same confidence, though, because Putney says the video is private. To be clear, that’s video of a police officer, paid with public taxpayer dollars, doing the public’s work in view of the public, filmed with a camera the public bought.

Putney says body camera videos are part of an officer’s personnel file and therefore not public record.

In fact, body cameras aren’t specifically addressed in the state’s open records law. Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock, a former CMPD deputy chief, says the videos should generally be public to build citizens’ trust of police.

Medlock made those comments as part of an event in Hickory marking Sunshine Week last week. Sunshine Week is an annual celebration designed to raise awareness about the need for government transparency. The week’s events illuminated two other areas where improvements in open government are needed:

▪ State law rightly says that government officials’ emails on their private accounts are public record if the email involves public business. But it’s not that simple.

Governments have no way to track their employees’ or politicians’ personal emails. So it’s up to the individual to keep emails, determine which ones are public records and provide them when asked.

As part of Sunshine Week, three news organizations asked for all private emails about public business from Council of State members and state department heads. They found no uniform policies and leaders relying on individual employees to do the right thing. That needs to change.

▪ Emails from last fall emerged Friday showing that Charlotte City Council members suspected that members of the media were bugging meeting rooms where the council meets in private. The Observer didn’t, of course, but the kerfuffle raises an important point: The City Council still does not record its closed sessions. Mecklenburg County commissioners do and release the recording once the need for secrecy has passed, as it almost always does.

The council takes minutes, as state law requires, but a recording would give a more complete understanding of what transpired. After all, these are public officials doing the public’s business. The public has a right to know.