Editorial: Save the records | February 22, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - February 22, 2012

Editorial: Save the records

There is no compelling need for Atherton to dispose of its police records at this time, whether or not state law authorizes the city to do so. Last week the City Council wrestled with a request by Interim Police Chief Ed Flint, who sought permission to shred a number of files involving citizen complaints and internal investigations into possible police misconduct that took place five years ago.

And we are encouraged that the council did not simply rubber stamp "approved" on the chief's request. Instead, members correctly agreed to a suggestion by Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen to save the files of cases involving current officers. But the even bigger question, in our view, is: Why the rush to destroy the files in the first place?

In recent years, Atherton has been a litigious town, with many lawsuits involving actions of various city employees. Even though a police officer may have been exonerated after an investigation, it strikes us as extremely short-sighted to destroy the records of these cases after five years, just because the law says you can.

Who knows when a civil suit could be filed in which the records might play a key role? Without them, a judge and jury might not be able to adjudicate such a case.

State law gives police officers a high bar of protection from freedom-of-information inquiries and other requests for access to case records. News organizations like the Almanac and the public in general are barred from viewing records of internal investigations of police officers' actions, even when an officer is exonerated.

Generally speaking, such secrecy does not cause a concern unless the incident is of high public interest, which many undoubtedly are. What about an internal investigation of an officer who is suspected of stealing from an Atherton resident, as happened a few years ago.

As a small town with no commercial activity, Atherton is not overwhelmed by police investigations. We would feel much more comfortable if records were kept at least 10 years by default, and longer if the involved officer is still on the force.

As an aside, we do want to note that the City Council displayed a newfound camaraderie under the leadership or Mayor Bill Widmer at the Feb. 15 meeting. After Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said she was not comfortable giving carte blanche to the police chief to destroy all 10 records under question, council members Jerry Carlson, Jim Dobbie and Elizabeth Lewis said they had no problem with the chief's request.

But when Mayor Widmer spelled out a compromise to retain all records involving officers still employed by the department, the council unanimously accepted the compromise. It was a show of cooperation that we have seldom seen on the council in recent years, and we hope it continues.


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