Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr’s sentiment that he is “uncomfortable with the exclusion of the press” from a task force meant to improve community policing should be everyone’s reaction. A free, independent press serves as the eyes and ears of the people.
Whatever ails society or government, a cure can only be found by being open and honest about the pain points.
For many people of color and the impoverished, there is historic pain associated with policing.
The new task force examining law enforcement’s relationships to the community and human services must be open to the public and the press. After national protests and outrage over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, a group of activists dubbed Act Now JH began asking valley leaders to examine the budget and function of law enforcement here.
The idea of a task force was floated, and the Teton County Board of County Commissioners chose to fund it to the tune of $14,000 in taxpayer money. They are to be commended for starting the process; reflection is key to optimization.
Commissioners chose five members of the public — in closed-door interviews, which foreshadowed the group’s first closed meeting — to listen, discuss and eventually create a request for proposals for another level of assessment. According to notes from the meeting, committee members will try to recruit two new members of Hispanic descent, another positive step.
But closing the doors of a publicly-funded and publicly-appointed committee tasked with important public business is unconscionable and potentially illegal. Teton County Administrator Alyssa Watkins cited a “sense of safety” as the reason for meeting in secrecy. There are other ways, working with the press, to foster feedback and ideas while ensuring a fair, independent report to the public.
Chatham House Rule is often used in such conversations to promote the free exchange of ideas without attribution to who made any given statement. The public’s right to know is preserved, and the press can fulfill its role of providing government transparency toward creation or modification of policy. Though journalistic standards suggest we avoid using anonymous sources, this is a case where transparency and reporting the content, not the direct source, would be appropriate.
Afterward, a journalist can approach committee members to ask if they are comfortable making comments about the substance of the meeting.
Despite the sentiment of the Teton County Administrator, sun needs to shine into law enforcement committee meetings. Any concern over a “sense of safety” can be easily resolved. Tough topics require real discussion, and these discussions need to be public.
Government is of and for the people. Elected officials and staff work for us, the taxpayers. Accountability and transparency are fundamentals of democratic government. The presence of a professional journalist and any interested members of the public should be allowed at any meeting not explicitly restricted by state statute.