Sept. 28 is International Right to Know Day, a day that promotes the right of every citizen worldwide to access government information and strives to make governments more transparent. The words “transparency” and “government information” may bring to mind Edward Snowden and his famous disclosure that the NSA engages in widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens. But I believe we should also consider access to government information on a smaller — yet no less important — scale.
In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act is a law designed to enable Americans to access public records from local, state, and federal agencies. But often, the Freedom of Information Act fails to ensure this basic right. For example, in the case of Laquan McDonald's death in Chicago, Ill., two years ago, the Chicago Police Department denied at least fifteen Freedom of Information Act requests for the video of the shooting to be released. It wasn’t until many members of the community expressed their concern about the video not being shown to the public, and a city judge ruled in their favor, that the video was finally released. It shouldn’t have taken so much effort to get access to what’s rightfully ours.
We have a right to know how our police departments decide to go about the task of “protecting and serving us.” We deserve to know whether they’re actually serving us or harming us. And yet, in various states nationwide, it’s being debated in court whether footage from the dashcams of police cruisers should be considered public record. Some states are even ruling that dashcam records shouldn’t be readily accessible to the public.
It should be policy that an officer is required to turn on their dashboard cameras and body cameras before arriving at a scene, and that if they don’t they are dismissed from the force. It should be national law that footage from any officer’s dashcam or body camera is considered public record.
Because if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that the U.S. government is incredibly capable of wrongdoing. Our nation’s list of immoral actions — both foreign and domestic — is extensive. We can’t trust that the leaders of this nation, and the leaders of our respective local law enforcing and law establishing bodies, will always do the right thing. We need transparency so we can hold them accountable. And the only way we can have transparency is if we have access to government information, access to how our officials are serving within their public roles.
So when we think about police reform, and what that should look like, we need to be sure to incorporate the importance of transparency into our visions. And when we call on our local politicians and congressional leaders to enact our visions, we need to remind them that transparency is our right. It isn’t something we should have to plead for. In a nation with a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” information belongs to us. On International Right to Know Day, and all the days to come, we should remind ourselves of this truth.