Over the long-term secrecy has the effect of impoverishing the well of public information, injecting an insidious inefficiency in the marketplace of ideas. It breeds scepticism among the citizenry, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists and the politics of the radical fringe. It oversimplifies complex challenges and complicates simple ones and it protects political elites from being held to account for their actions ..."
--From Tulsa/writer Denver Nicks in Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History
"Transparency in government is of the upmost importance to the City of Tulsa and to my Administration. This year, the City hired a Records Manager. Her essential function is to manage and coordinate the City's records, including the policies and procedures for open records requests. She will work with the records custodians to ensure that the City is responsive to the citizens' records requests. The Open Records Act does not require the creation of any record, other than records relating to expenditures. The U.S. District Court through the Consent Decree required the City to create records in order to document certain issues. The presumption was that the City would create and disclose these records in order to demonstrate that its practices, procedures, and policies were reasonable and non-discriminatory. Once the City demonstrated to the Court that its practices, procedures, and policies were reasonable and non-discriminatory, the Court determined the Consent Decree was no longer necessary and dissolved the requirements placed upon the City. ..."
--June 8, 2012, Excerpt from my request for a statement from Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett's office on TPD's new record disclose policy
The Big Backslide
The Tulsa Police Department, at a recent press conference, announced it was dropping a host of data reporting requirements and essentially calling a halt to a never fully operative cop-car-based video "encounter capture" system. City beat cops are arguably the most important public officials we have. And they HAVE more raw power, while on duty, than almost any public agent excepting military officials, governors and the president of the United States.
They have the power to detain, question, and although rarely employed -- the power to maim or kill. We give them plenty of responsibilities and lots of discretion and all this power -- they need to ensure their own safety and to protect us all: in return we should demand lots of detail on what they are doing and to whom.
At a fateful press conference some days ago, TPD explained that the legal settlement that had required the existing data release practices had run its course and that the Department would no longer be making available a whole slew of records about routine officer contacts, use of force detail, some other ordinary field operational data and key demographic and social micro-data about Tulsans encountered in these stops and intercepts. With these data sets anyone with appropriate software, good analytic skills and some statistical savvy can create detailed maps of routine TPD activities: on the demographic character of the people "captured" in these encounters.
Policing: The Essential Service
There are few local public services more essential than effective policing. The TPD is a relatively well-paid department and with its college degree requirement, the Department is among the best formally educated police operations in America.
And as I have written in these pages before, TPD is filled with dedicated people who do very dangerous things that few of us would want to do at any price. Intervening in domestic squabbles -- and there are gobs of them in Tulsa -- is a surprisingly dangerous task and is just one example on offer.
And the recent performance of TPD Chief Jordan and his senior staff in cracking Tulsa's Good Friday killings was simply fantastic work -- work assisted, ironically, by lots of good ground level information from cooperative folks in the north side neighbourhoods that were the killing grounds for the Easter assailants.
TPD's Easter success was a great counterpoint to the multiple challenges that TPD has been under during the course of the last 10 years: including a multi-year-long law suit from the Department's own minority officer cadre and a more than three-year-long series of trials for corruption, witness/informant abuse and outright lying among over a dozen officers.
TPD and Transparency
We live in an age marked by ready access to huge volumes of data. And some of the stuff is actually useful material for our daily lives, our productivity at work and the progress of science, technology, medicine, enterprise and government.
UTW readers may know that a rogue U.S. intelligence analyst, with Oklahoma roots, apparently released more than 750,000 documents during a brief period in 2010-2011 including diplomatic cables, intelligence reports and field observations from small unit commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and feedback from our allies about various matters strategic, trivial and embarrassing. This story is discussed in ravishing detail in writer/Tulsan Denver Nicks' great new book Private -- the story of Private Bradley Manning.
In the new Nicks book we learn a lot about U.S. secrecy and intelligence practices. But one of the things rarely discussed about Manning's apparent humongous handoff to the WikiLeaks outfit, which then conveyed same to a handful of elite publications and to the public via its web site, was the surprisingly trivial impacts of this historic "dump." With the obviously nontrivial exception of the impact that some of the materials may have had on a handful of middle eastern governments, where citizens for the first time learned embarrassing, sometimes outrageous tales about the practices of their leaders, Manning's massive release has had extremely limited direct impacts on US foreign policy, military operations or our diplomatic initiates.
What we have here is proof positive that the largest release of secret/highly sensitive information in modern American history had no large impact on US foreign policy, military operations and our diplomatic operations. This is a signature message about the over-employment of secrecy.
The Mayor, TPD Chief Jordan and the City Council -- when they get into this fight (and they should) -- need to revisit the TPD's new policies. It's in the interest of the Department and in the interest of Tulsa citizens and police officers. And the best future for this city that has had racial/ethnic and diversity challenges is one with a radically transparent policing operation.
Demanding less is to declare that TPD is a special zone that doesn't require the openness and transparency that we routinely require, say of Public Works and other city operations. And while the letter of the law may not require it -- a more open TPD makes moral sense, sets up a superior avenue for garnering trust across all of Tulsa's tribes and spaces and pushes us toward the advanced accountability and superior policing we should all demand.
In a column to follow, I'll look at some compelling alternatives to the new TPD policy and some exciting ways to use technology to make the Department a more open spot.
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