In the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, our state gratefully received the help of others. But in one case, our sister states’ police forces protested after seeing an unconscionable level of racism and abuse of evacuees by a Louisiana police force.
State troopers from New Mexico and Michigan reported Baton Rouge police officers routinely harassed black people, resorted to unnecessary violence and conducted illegal searches in the days after Katrina.
The city leadership of Baton Rouge “backed the blue” — to the point that The Advocate fought for years in court for access to police records about the case.
That cover-up is a prime example of what the Public Records Law is intended to prevent. The law is meant to allow people to know what the public servants they are paying are doing — or not doing.
And the Baton Rouge police records case was one in which the law was applied in full force and by the courts, no thanks to city-parish government and police leadership.
That is why we oppose any weakening of the Public Records Law as it applies to law enforcement, including a new bill that could cripple today’s records law and its accountability of law enforcement employees for their actions.
“Law enforcement agencies may exclude from disclosure any employment-related information that will identify a particular employee,” said House Bill 430 by Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville. “Nonidentifying information of a general nature or aggregated data that does not identify a particular employee may be disclosed.”
This sweeping loophole would encompass “police departments and sheriffs, district attorneys, judges and their respective staffs.”
This would cut from the Public Records Law basic information that today is and ought to be available to taxpayers, such as salaries and perks of particular officeholders.
That alone would be objectionable, as it would open the door to political favoritism that we are all too familiar with in Louisiana, but there already are reasonable provisions protecting public employees from release of information such as Social Security numbers or medical records.
Worse, we see this new language as crippling the Public Records Law in cases — hopefully rare — of abuse of office by prosecutors, police and deputies. There is little that a person can find out if the law bars release of any identifying information.
New Orleans’ Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux calls Burns’ bill “extremely broad.”
“HB 430 would have the effect of hiding from the public the entire personnel files of law enforcement officers, including any disciplinary actions pertaining to their acts as public servants,” Quatrevaux said.
Not only is it an unwise restriction on the public’s right to know, it is an invitation to cover up abuses by officers or others.
We hope that the Legislature will learn from the events of Katrina and reject the anti-accountability this bill would allow.