Police photos involving dead crime victims would be exempt from public records laws under Senate Bill 508, which unfortunately was passed by the Senate Committee on Judiciary last week on a unanimous vote.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin argues in support of the bill that it would never be appropriate for such photos to be published, and that publishing them would be sensationalistic, immoral and unethical.
We understand where Sheriff Hanlin is coming from. We really do. In fact, professional newspapers never, or virtually never, publish such images. We here at The News-Review have long had what we call the breakfast test. If looking at a photo would cause the average reader to gag on breakfast, it really doesn’t belong in the paper.
Unless there’s a really compelling reason for it. Such as, for example, the hypothetical instance in which a photo shows evidence of police wrongdoing.
Now, we have every confidence in our sheriff, and do not expect that this will be a problem any time in the near future. Sheriff Hanlin has earned the public’s trust because of his good character. We have no doubt that he means well, both in the way he conducts his official business and in his motives for proposing the public records exception. And we have every hope that he is providing the kind of leadership that ensures his deputies also remain above reproach.
But there are other sheriffs, and other policemen and women at work today around the state, and there will be more down the road. To say that none of them, ever, will be deserving of the public scrutiny SB 508 will prevent is naive in the extreme. A bill, if approved by the house, the senate and the governor, becomes a law. And a law has a way of sticking around. It can outlast a single sheriff. Or a dozen. Or a hundred.
Will we be able to trust every one of them?
Public records laws exist for the benefit of the public. They allow not only the media, but every member of the public, to keep track of what their government officials are doing with the money and the power that we the people invested in them.
The bill has been amended, and it is improved. One improvement changed a vague exemption for “images related to the death of a person” to specifically exempting “images of a dead body, or parts of a dead body.” The original version could have barred all sorts of images of car crashes, fatal fires, prison inmate deaths and police shootings, whether or not the dead body could be seen in the photo.
And the amended version has also been improved in another way. It allows release of the photo if the party wanting the photo proves that “the public interest by clear and convincing evidence requires disclosure.” That sounds pretty impressive, but what it boils down to is that the party seeking the photo has to prove in court the photo should be released. That’s going to have a chilling effect on disclosure, even when the reasons for disclosure are very, very good.
We think this bill should be rejected when it comes to the senate floor. What we need in government is fewer secrets and more transparency and accountability, not the reverse.