The nation’s two most significant news stories in recent weeks both underscore a critical shortcoming too big to ignore — that government, at all levels, too often fails in its obligations for transparency. Whether it’s about guaranteeing that police conduct toward those they’re sworn to protect is free of abuses or that the US is carrying out its foreign policy and intelligence-gathering in ways consistent with the Constitution, international treaties, and basic humanity, Americans need to know they can trust those in authority.
And the US cannot to expect to lead in the vital mission of forging peaceful mechanisms for resolving global conflict if other nations cannot trust it to abide by the rules of decency demanded of everybody. Over the long run, indifference to such standards can only threaten the safety of our service members and other citizens abroad.
A Staten Island grand jury’s failure to issue any indictment in the death of Eric Garner brought the issue of police accountability to a boil. Millions watched the video demonstrating that police officer Daniel Pantaleo applied a chokehold to bring Garner to the ground and then kept pressure on his head as fellow cops pinned him there. The city medical examiner concluded Garner’s death was a homicide caused by compression of his neck and chest.
What we don’t know is what evidence was presented to the grand jury. At least when a grand jury similarly delivered no indictment in the Ferguson, Missouri police killing of Michael Brown, we had the benefit of the full transcript of its proceedings, providing solid basis for public debate about that outcome. New York and other jurisdictions need to eliminate policies barring release of grand jury records.
One lesson from the Ferguson transcript is that the close relationship between police and local prosecutors becomes problematic when potential police misconduct is at issue. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is right in asking Governor Andrew Cuomo to give him interim authority — pending a permanent legislative solution — to intervene in cases where unarmed citizens are killed by police.
It’s particularly frustrating that video documentation of Garner’s death did not change the outcome at the grand jury, but surely Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken the right step in his pilot program for police wearing body cameras to document their interactions with the public. More evidence can never hurt.
Public trust in the NYPD would also be enhanced by City Councilmembers Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso’s proposed Right to Know Act, requiring police to inform citizens that, except where specific reason to suspect a crime exists, they have the right to refuse a search. That protection can help ensure that the mayor’s pledge to curb the abuses of Stop and Frisk becomes reality.
The federal government role here is constrained by the primacy of states in law enforcement. But the Justice Department is right to consider civil rights charges against Pantaleo, and Attorney General Eric Holder took an important step this week in broadening the existing ban on racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials to similarly bar such practices based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, and national origin, as well.
Difficult as making progress on police-community relations nationwide will be, the revelations contained in the just-released Senate report about CIA torture and deception from 2002 to 2008 present even more daunting challenges. Putting a light on this history is indispensable, but absent consequences for those whose illegal and inhumane conduct was documented it’s hard to see specifically where the issue moves next.
Coming after revelations unearthed in recent years by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, however, this report makes clear the nation is long past due for an open debate about how the US conducts surveillance and anti-terrorism efforts. Dick Cheney apologists have already come out swinging hard, and this is no time for Americans who care about our decency on the world stage to shrink from the fight. 2016 is just around the corner, and we have no one to blame but ourselves if we let this challenge go unmet.