When police kill, public has right to information

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There’s often tension between government and the press about access to public information. Typically, the news media strive to use public-records laws to obtain information about government expenditures and decision-making.

What’s on the mayor’s city-issued credit card? Does that ambitious new developer have business ties to members of the city council? Will plans for this development have a potential impact on the environment?

Getting answers to questions like those are almost always in the public interest, but scrutinizing the actions of government is never more important than when a member of the public is killed.

That’s why it’s so surprising to see the Cameron County District Attorney’s office in Brownsville, Texas, refuse to release a video showing two Brownsville police officers shooting a middle school student in January. Jaime Gonzalez Jr., a 15-year-old 8th-grader, was fatally shot by the officers after pointing a pellet gun at them and refusing to surrender it.

A grand jury reviewed the circumstances and determined that the police acted properly. That could very well have been the case. They had no way of knowing that the pellet gun was not a lethal weapon and had an obligation to protect the safety of others at the school.

Still, the public has a right to any and all information concerning the death of a citizen at the hands of law enforcement. Otherwise, we’re all left to wonder.

Is the district attorney understandably trying to spare the boy’s family more trauma? Or is it possible that the police could have defused the situation without killing the boy? The video would go a long way toward addressing any public doubts.

In this country, we take the death penalty very seriously. The judicial system typically allows multiple appeals and it can often take many years for an execution to take place. It’s because people of good faith want to make sure that before the government takes someone’s life, we’re absolutely certain that justice has been done.

A fatal incident that takes place in a matter of seconds is no less deserving of scrutiny. A “no bill” from a grand jury does not supplant the need to share the best possible evidence with the community.

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