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To Protect and Serve
by Sartre
28 July 2003The Thinker

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 Security numbers.

The stated mission of this endeavor is the dissemination of critical information:

The 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 officers' privacy.

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 society.

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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