Tuesday, January 26, 2010

City should release Jackson file, and pronto

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Last night, city council voted to not even discuss making public the personnel file of police officer Marcus Jackson. Jackson, who is accused of 15 charges related to his alleged abuse of his position of authority to stalk and sexually assault women, is innocent until proven guilty — as we’ve emphasized here before, and as colleague Rhi Bowman points out in a previous blog post today.

However, Jackson was a government employee, a public servant (a term that’s unfortunately slipped into disuse), paid by the public to protect the public’s interests. Government records do not belong to government administrators, they belong to the public, and in this writer’s opinion, the public should have full access to all public records, in order to be able to keep track of how their employees are serving them.

Whenever any public servant faces charges of impropriety as serious as those in the Jackson case, the public’s right to see the accused person’s full public employment record — including, in this case, the extent of the city’s screening process, any previous complaints lodged against Jackson, and how those were dealt with — should be a top priority.

Under N.C. law, personnel files of government employees are not public records; that’s a law that needs to be changed. The state, however, allows cities to disclose personnel records if city leaders think the records are needed to maintain public trust. Now, if the Jackson case isn’t a test of the public trust — a cop accused of stalking women, for crying out loud — then none are.

Again, the state needs to change the law regarding personnel records of government employees. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either experienced, or heard other journalists talk about, government officials successfully stymieing legitimate investigations into public misconduct by using the “confidentiality of personnel records” excuse. This kind of thing goes on all the time, as many, many journalists can attest.

The bottom line is that government is supposed to be conducted for the benefit of ordinary citizens. And it is in the public’s interest to know what’s in the file of a government employee who's accused of crimes as severe as those in the Jackson case. Those files belong to the people, not to the police department. City council should reconsider last night’s wrong-headed decision, and stand up for the public’s right to know, rather than protecting secrecy in the police department.

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