Prairie Lights: Why we want the names of those 3 cops

St. John

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John. The Montana Constitution wants us looking over his shoulder.

Many people have been asking why those of us in the news business want the names of the three Billings police officers disciplined for on-the-job sex (or on-city-property sex) with a Police Department clerk.

On the Last Best News Facebook page, readers left comments decrying our “lynch mob” mentality and accusing us of just wanting to drum up traffic for our news outlets. They also asked what we intended to do with the information and asked who would benefit from making those names public.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

I can’t speak for the Gazette or KTVQ — which joined forces to petition for an open hearing on a motion filed by the three officers, who asked the District Court to prohibit the city from releasing their names — but I can give you my perspective on this mess.

The most basic answer, and the one least likely to appeal to anyone not in the business of keeping an eye on government, is that the names should be released because the right is well established.

You are free to believe that the people who drafted a new Montana Constitution in 1972 went too far, but the fact remains that we have one of the strongest constitutional commitments to transparent government in the United States.

Article II, Section 9 of our constitution is short and sweet. It reads: “Right to know. No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Over the years, the Montana Supreme Court has been called on more than a few times to determine where the sweet spot is in that formulation — to determine in each case whether the right to privacy trumps the right to know.

As Mike Meloy, of Helena, the attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said in our story last week, the Montana Supreme Court has “made it clear that police officers are public employees ‘vested with the public trust,’ and as such, have a diminished right of privacy over personnel matters involving a violation of that trust.”

One of the most compelling Supreme Court rulings was in another case brought by the Gazette, in 2011. In that case, the court ordered the city to release the name of a Police Department clerk suspected of misusing a city credit card. Her name was released even though she hadn’t yet been charged with a crime.

It seems almost impossible, given that and other precedents, that the names of the three officers in the current case won’t be released. It is fundamental to the business of news gathering that we demand as much information as we are entitled to have. Until Last Best News got wind of the disciplinary action and asked Police Chief Rich St. John about it, nothing about the case had yet been made public — not even to the mayor and City Council.

That’s why we want the information. Then there is the question of what good will come from knowing the names — “the merits of public disclosure,” to use the constitutional phrase.

Contrary to what some people say, we are not aiming to shame the officers, to punish them for a moral lapse or to humiliate their families. The chief merit of public disclosure is that these are people paid with taxpayer money, so if they are going to misbehave so egregiously on the public’s dime, we deserve to know who they are.

There is another reason, and it is tied to another records request that I submitted to the city attorney’s office, asking to see the complete disciplinary records of all three officers, once their names are released.

We deserve to know whether, as St. John has said several times, these were “really good officers” who made bad mistakes, officers whose experience and training made them too valuable to let go.

If they have no previous disciplinary records, or only a minor policy violation or two, there probably won’t be much public pressure to fire them. But if their records show that they have been in serious trouble before, or on more than a couple of occasions, citizens will have the right to ask why they are still on the force.

The point is, we don’t know, and we have the well-established right to know.

Finally, beyond the considerations that come into play in every case involving public records, this one has an aggravating addendum, which is that St. John has already released the name of the female clerk the officers admitted having sex with.

He gave her name, presumably, because she had already been fired after admitting to the theft of narcotics from the police evidence locker, to which she had transferred after working in the department’s City Hall offices, the job she had when the sexual assignations took place.

But she has not yet been charged with a crime, and it was not a crime to have sex with the police officers, just a policy violation for all involved. One would hope that Michael Moses, the district judge who is to decide whether to bar the release of the officers’ names, will ask St. John why his officers have a greater right to privacy than a departmental clerk.

Police officers, to whom we issue badges and guns and the discretion to deprive people of their liberty and even their lives, would seem to be vested with much more public trust than a clerk.

There is one final, simple reason to release the three names: to protect the good names of the approximately 97 police patrol officers who were not disciplined for having sex on the job.

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