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To Protect and Serve
28 July 2003
Mr. William Sheehan publishes a web site with lists of
police officers’ addresses, home phone numbers and Social Security numbers. Should he be allowed to do so?
Whether you like the police or not, we all have experiences in dealing with
them in one capacity or another. Officers are humans beings, your neighbor
and maybe part of your own family. Robo Cop has yet to get a patrol car or
go on duty. So why do so many public safety careerists want to be separate
from the populace, while chasing a claim of special privilege?
The easy answer is that the civic culture of the police, “To Protect and
Serve,” often translates into harass and control. Protecting the peace is
not synonymous or equivalent to the enforcement of the law. Ordinary citizens
live lives of voluntary respect for most laws. The threat of punishment or
the fear of penalty does not infuse moral conduct. It is the ethos of the
individual and their respective community that produces law abiding citizens.
Nearly all people would prefer to get along with the sheriff then to confront
them, and most deputies seek to evade avoidable risky situations. Despite
such norms, the law is frequently indistinguishable from rogue cops. An outlaw
cop is a betrayer of the public trust. Accountability for one’s own actions
is essential to every citizen and especially applies to those who wear the
badge of public servant. If one is dedicated to authentic protection and
service, the constituents for law and order will support the constable. A
“Good Cop” has no fear of who he is and who knows it.
So why is William Sheehan an antagonist of the State of Washington Association
of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs? Mr. Sheehan publishes a web site that
posts lists of police officers’ addresses, home phone numbers and Social
The stated mission of this endeavor is the dissemination of critical information:
site’s owner believes that only with a continuing and accurate data base
of police officers, prosecutors and those that are part of the criminal justice
system, can true accountability in government be achieved . . . When
it gets right down to it, our employees are not any more knowledgeable or
moral than the rest of us. Yet, they persist in telling us that they know
better. They persist on compiling vast databases in order to “police” us.
They persist on building empires of bureaucrats, by taxing us far beyond
the rate of inflation. Finally, they persist in their resistance any attempt
at reform. This site intends to change that.
Do you agree
with the intent and essence in this concept? One’s answer may well be determined
by your attitude about the nature of any and all “public servants."
Do they work for you, are you the ultimate boss? Or are you content to be
a subject of their orders and obedient to the boot of enforcement?
Well, when S.B. 6700 was proposed, passed and signed into law by the governor
of Washington State, you got the answer from the Order of the Gendarme. The
law stated: "A person or organization shall not, with the intent to harm
or intimidate, sell, trade, give, publish, distribute or otherwise release
the residential address, residential telephone number, birth date or social
security number of any law enforcement-related, corrections officer-related,
or court-related employee or volunteer or someone with a similar name, and
categorize them as such, without the express written permission of the employee
or volunteer unless specifically exempted by law or court order."
Surprisingly, an appeals court in Seattle ruled that the King County Sheriff
must disclose full names of police officers and salary information to the
publisher of a Web site. The appeals court noted that the lower court's decision
ran counter to the state attorney general's interpretation of the public
records law, which states: "A decision to permit inspection [of public records]
cannot be based on the identity of the requester or the stated purpose, if
any, of the request."
Finally, as reported by the Gannett News Watch, the court held that
releasing the full names of the officers would not invade their privacy.
Even if more private information about the officers could be tracked down
from their full names, this is "a fact of modern life in this age of technology,"
according to the court, so the release of the names -- especially when the
county routinely releases them in other situations -- does not invade the
Friends, this is a minor victory; not for the usual culture that defends
privileged privacy, but for little people - the real chiefs of ALL the police.
A policemen can be a “Pig” or a “Super Hero,” depending on their behavior
and conduct. Most of the time they are doing a job that the vast majority
of honest citizens respect. However, the inherent suspicion and recurrent
mistrust for strong arm methods and deceitful intimidation has diminished
worthy regard for maintaining the peace. Goon squads have no place in a civil
Personal privacy has become a figment of the imagination, as the appeals
court points out. There is no special status for any government employees.
On the contrary, peculiar additional standing belongs to the citizen, since
legitimate authority flows from their permission. When bureaucrats are exposed
to the same rules, regulations and accountability as the average inhabitant,
they will begin to serve their rightful intended purpose. The content on
Mr. Sheehan’s site is not out of line, it’s plain old fashioned public record
access. No where to hide applies to everyone. Acting responsibly is the duty
of all the people - public officials included.
Sartre is the pen name of James Hall, a reformed political operative. His website is Breaking All the Rules.
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