Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Don't keep report secret

Profiling data: An insult to the public

A federal magistrate's gag order delaying release of a Cincinnati racial-profiling report is an insult to the public that paid for the report. The action only raises more questions and suspicions, justified or not, about what's in the report and how those involved intend to use that data.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael R. Merz granted a request, made by plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the city, that release of the findings be delayed to give the parties involved more time to analyze them.

Apparently, keeping the report secret until shortly after the Nov. 4 City Council election would give them sufficient time to do their analysis.

How convenient.

"We don't want it to be used to further somebody's political agenda," Kenneth Lawson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, told the Enquirer. Whose agenda is that? And what gives Lawson & Co. the right to determine what should or should not influence voters in next month's election?

Apparently, they don't believe Cincinnati voters should have timely access to public information about one of the most important issues to face the city in recent years. This is an affront to the democratic process and the public's right to have the information it needs to make decisions at the ballot box.

The report, based on records of contacts between Cincinnati Police officers and the public since May 2001, is tied to the 2002 collaborative agreement in the racial-profiling lawsuit. University of Cincinnati researchers have been analyzing the 50,000 contact cards in light of the question of possible profiling and its relation to the city's police reform efforts.

Their study is completed. Why can't we see it? Lawson says the findings are "very complex." Let the public be the judge of that. Why must we wait for interested parties to put their spin on it for us after the election?

"I'm just really disturbed by the whole thing," said Councilman Pat DeWine, chairman of the committee that had moved to make the report public. "This is information the city started collecting long before the collaborative started. Quite frankly, it's taken the city way too long to get it to this point."

That the gag order came at the request of ACLU lawyers is particularly ironic, DeWine said. "If any government body were trying to withhold such a report, they'd be the first ones to demand it be released. Now the shoe's on the other foot."

As for Lawson's "political agenda" claim, DeWine, who is familiar with the material, doesn't believe the report's findings would sway the voting public in any particular direction anyway. "It's something every side will try to use to its advantage," he said.

Merz' decisions can be appealed. The city should fight this order. It sends a message that Cincinnati voters are not smart or mature enough to process the information, but must be spoon-fed.

"I don't think the collaborative was meant to insulate public information from the public," DeWine said.

Neither do we. It is not up to the judiciary to manage the effect of public information on the voting public. This is a democracy. When in doubt, disclose. The report is ready, and it should be released.

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