Police must build trust, not act in secrecy

Charles Ramsey at a press conference in Norristown in January.

Authority is earned through legitimacy and legitimacy is conferred on the just. That is what I have learned in my near 50 years in law enforcement. It is also a founding principle of our democracy.

It is naive to think that our citizens will follow the law simply because it is the law. Law, and the authority that comes with it, must be seen as just in order to be effective. We know this inherently as citizens. However, our history is replete with leaders who discover this truth the hard way. Sometimes we dump their tea in the harbor, sometimes we refuse to move to the back of the bus.

The same principles are true for those enforcing the laws. In order for police to be effective they must have the trust of their community and the legitimacy to impose their authority. How does law enforcement build trust and maintain their legitimacy? They do it by being transparent in their processes and just in their actions.

Transparency by law enforcement allows the community to see they are being treated fairly. It allows them to view and understand the process. A lack of transparency will always create mistrust. This is true whether or not the actions taken by police were right or wrong. What purpose does justice serve if it is carried out in the darkness? It serves no purpose at all.

Currently, there is a bill in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly that seeks to limit law enforcement transparency, House Bill 27. It seeks to restrict the ability of a police department to release information about officer-involved shootings. This bill would undermine the trust that citizens have in law enforcement and by undermining that trust it would work against those it seeks to protect.

The debate on House Bill 27 has been framed as a choice between officer safety and the public’s right to know. This is a false choice.

In 2015, as the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, I instituted a policy that required the release of an officer’s name within 72 hours of an officer-involved shooting. Under that policy, officer names would be withheld if threats had been made against the officer or their family.  Since that time there have been more than 25 officer-involved shootings in Philadelphia. All had their names released within 72 hours. In no case has this jeopardized their safety. What it has done is build trust between the department and the community.

I spent many years on the streets of Chicago as a cop, and many more as the head of the police departments of Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. I am also the proud father of a son in law enforcement.  If you think I would do anything to jeopardize the safety of the men and women that serve our communities, you are wrong. House Bill 27 is not about safety, it is about politics.

I know that transparency is not easy. Being a police officer today is one of the most difficult jobs in America. Many in the law enforcement community feel under siege and I understand the desire to push back.  However, we must resist an “us versus them” mentality. Guardianship should be the watchword of the police community.

Secrecy is not the answer to the problems we face. House Bill 27 will not benefit those it seeks to protect. What it will do is breed mistrust in our communities.

Charles Ramsey is chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.