Columns » Max Brantley

Told you so

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In 1987, Gov. Bill Clinton appointed a committee of press and government representatives to consider amending the state Freedom of Information Act.

I was in a lonely minority that opposed the changes.

At the urging of government employees — and over my heated protest to the governor at a final meeting on the legislation in his conference room — the law was changed to prohibit examination of public employees' job performance records except those pertaining to resolution of a suspension or termination proceeding.

I argued then that poor job performance, even if short of suspension or termination, was of vital public interest, particularly in the case of police officers. At that time, we were not far removed from a day when the Little Rock Police Department was known for brutal officers who acted with tacit approval of superiors. The bad actors had no suspensions or terminations on their records, but their personnel files sometimes reflected a pattern of complaints, generally held to be meritless. These patterns, once known, worked against the bad apples when better leadership was in place.

All this comes rushing back because of the arrest last week of Bill Lawson, 59, a Stephens Media reporter and photographer. He snapped a photograph of State Trooper Thomas Weindruch as he ordered Lawson away from a small house fire in Maumelle. Weindruch was not on official duty. Lawson said he did nothing untoward. Weindruch seems to have been set off by the multiple flashes of Lawson's motor-driven camera in his direction. He will have more to say, presumably, as the investigation of his actions continues. But it's hard to believe the flash of a camera justifies an off-duty officer's arrest of a journalist for obstruction of government operations or the handcuffing of the “suspect” for 30 minutes. (The charge against Lawson has already been dropped.)

Channel 7 recently aired a videotape of a traffic stop by Weindruch that indicated he acted intemperately on at least one other occasion. Reliable sources say his professional demeanor has been questioned other times, too. But, by law, since he's never been suspended or terminated, if a record of such incidents exists, we're not allowed to examine it.

This is why I fought Clinton on the FOI change. Under the old law, when Channel 7 got tipped about the highway incident involving Weindruch, it could have asked to inspect Weindruch's personnel file. Reporters could have learned if he had a record for playing tough-cop on the highway, out of sight of witnesses (save those handy cameras now mounted in patrol cars). Knowledge like this, publicly reported, can be important in how superiors at a state agency handle complaints.

You don't have to live in Arkansas long to know that many public employees hold jobs on account of family and political connections. Public employees with such connections already enjoy an edge when the public complains. Double that advantage for a police officer, who's generally dealing with, at the least, a probable traffic violator and gets close to an automatic benefit of the doubt. On a dark highway, late at night, a power-drunk cop can get away with a lot. If he has friends and kin in high places, he's even harder to discipline.

It's simple, really. The sun should shine on the entire record of a public employee's work record. A record of frequent complaints bears not only on the employee, but on the employee's supervisors, too.

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