The police don't want you to know what they're doing. They're getting away with it

Governor Tom Wolf announces a budget initiative to fight the opioid epidemic, during a press conference at the Montgomery County Gourthouse, in Norristown, PA, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

The issue of police-involved shootings have been back in the news this summer, partly because some of the higher profile cases that have sparked headlines since 2014 have now run their course in the criminal justice system. None of these cases led to a criminal conviction against the cops involved – not even the 2016 Minnesota incident involving Philando Castile, a legally permitted gun owner who appeared on a dashcam video to be complying with the officer’s demands.

The flip side, of course, is that many of the cases never would have dented America’s consciousness were it not for the advances in digital technology that now make it possible to film a police-citizen encounter on a phone, or with tiny cameras on an officer’s car or even his person. A generation ago, all but a handful of police-involved shooting cases involved the word of largely trusted law-enforcement officers versus the word of “people from the neighborhood.” And we know how that movie ends.

The shocking videos in cases like Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy playing with an Airsoft toy gun gunned down in less than two seconds, or Eric Garner, who was selling loose cigarettes and died after a police chokehold, has left many Americans saying we need even more transparency when it comes to understanding what police officers are doing in our names. Think about it — for better or worse, it’s all but impossible to win a criminal conviction against a law officer for this type of poor conduct. So transparency and disclosure is not only our best but arguably our only real shot at policing the police.

No wonder the police and some of their unquestioning lackeys in the political arena are trying to shut this avenue down. And they are getting away with it — especially here in Pennsylvania:

Gov.  Tom Wolf says he will sign a controversial Senate bill that would limit public access to police footage.

Under the bill, police footage (audio and video recordings from both body cameras and dashboard cameras) would become exempt from the state’s public-records law. That means police departments wouldn’t be required to release footage to those whose request it.

The state Senate passed the legislation without debate in a 49-1 vote Tuesday. Wolf says he will OK the bill despite reservations that it could limit transparency.

I’m more than a little disappointed in Gov. Wolf here — even as you can see that his hands were pretty much tied. For one thing, there were legal obstacles to officers wearing body cams at all, so the price for getting Pennsylvania lawmakers on board was kowtowing to police unions on everything else. Same as it ever was. What’s more, a gubernatorial veto likely would be overridden. And this isn’t happening in a vacuum: We live in an American society that increasingly becoming less transparent, from our current president’s war on the free press right down to the police beat in Philadelphia.

When it comes to the arena of social injustice, we have laws to limit brutality by rogue officers, but we don’t have the will to fully enforce them. We have the technology to inform the public about officer conduct, but we lack the courage to put that technology to work. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, and if Dr. King were alive in 2017, he’d be so sad to see it flatlining like this.