"In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it."Simon argues that there aren't any bloggers fighting to keep the city government honest. The laws provide access to many police records, but an individual is left with little practical recourse if the police don't obey them. (They hassle photographers taking pictures on bridges, too.) I'm sympathetic to Simon's argument, but the primary problem is public accountability not the lack of a newspaper to provide it.
It reminded me of my own experience getting access to campus police records in college. (Neither the crimes, nor the institutions were as threatening as they are in Baltimore.) The M.I.T. campus police refused to show reporters its police log, a simple record of incidents and arrests. It took us a year or more of effort to get access to them.
What was involved in getting access to those records? The Student Press Law Center provided resources for student journalists. I knew the basic outlines of the law, that other papers had similar problems, and that many of them prevailed in the end. The issues were clear cut at public universities, but Massachusetts law seemed fairly clear for police at private colleges. We asked to see the records several times--just walked into the police station and asked to see it. We also did this a few times with the local Cambridge police, who never gave us a hard time.
I also had the help of a lawyer, a former editor-in-chief of The Tech, who helped us negotiate with the Institute. I recall a letter he wrote to Thomas Henneberry, M.I.T.'s lawyer, requesting access to the police log: "We believe that this is an appropriate matter for injunctive relief and hope seeking such relief does not become necessary." I delivered the letter in person to various administrators--the president, the chairman of the corporation, etc.
I certainly had instiutional support from my fellow students at the newspaper. I think it's easier to feel confident in pressing the case when you have an organization behind you, but it's hard to quantify the effect.
Henneberry wrote a letter back to us, explaining that everything we argued was nonsense. I don't recall exactly how we responded, but several months later the police log was opened. We did not get any official response, but the log was available to reporters. The police log is still published reguarly.
What's the lesson for bloggers in this? You probably need an umbrella organization to help coordinate a campaign for open records and a lawyer willing to help you in specific cases. You need to make a sustained effort to get access to records. The first few times you show up, you'll simply be turned away. It's not inconceivable that bloggers could achieve as much as the local paper in this regard.