Tag: government transparency

Police Accountability in Maryland

Several people videotaped the arrest of a belligerent woman at the Preakness Stakes and posted it online. The woman assaulted another patron of the race and two officers during her well-deserved arrest.

The criminalization of citizens’ recordings of the arrest, which culminates in the woman lying face down and bleeding, is a different matter.

Toward the end of the video, posted on YouTube (warning: violence and language), a police officer approaches the person filming the arrest and says, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

Unfortunately, the officer was right.

The Maryland wiretapping law makes it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties involved. The Preakness incident sparked a debate about the wisdom of a law that makes it illegal to provide public accountability of police actions.

This is the latest in a rash of incidents where Maryland police were recorded while using force or making arrests. While the Maryland law makes an exception for police to record their encounters with citizens, Maryland law enforcement officers will arrest and indict anyone who records their encounter with the police.

Case in point: Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle and recording the experience with a helmet-mounted camera. He was riding recklessly and beyond the speed limit, which warranted a citation, but not his detention by a Maryland State Police officer at gunpoint and the trooper not first identifying himself as an officer of the law. The first few seconds of the encounter look like a carjacking, not enforcement of traffic laws. Graber posted his interaction with law enforcement officers on YouTube and was arrested for it. He now faces felony charges under the wiretapping statute, and prosecutors sought $15,000 bond for a crime that carries a maximum $10,000 fine. The judge reportedly questioned the charges at the bond hearing. Graber goes to trial on June 1st.

This is a questionable policy in the same state where excessive use of force against a University of Maryland student resulted in discipline and possible criminal charges for three Prince George’s County officers. The same jurisdiction knew that Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo may have had nothing to do with a drug trafficking ring, but raided his home at gunpoint anyway, terrorized his family, and shot his dogs. The result of the raid was that there was no wrongdoing by Calvo and his family.

The Maryland wiretapping law is itching for an update. It’s time for the Maryland code to stop acting as a barrier to transparency in law enforcement operations.

Federal Spending Transparency: Unlocking the Power of Abstraction

I’ll present a short paper and lead some discussion on federal spending transparency today at an OMB Watch conference entitled “Strengthening Federal Spending Transparency: A Working Conference to Develop a Plan of Action.”

My paper is called “Federal Spending Transparency: Unlocking the Power of Abstraction.” It builds on lessons I learned from developing the Earmarkdata.org model aimed at getting earmark information out of Congress.

Information scientists will find the paper amateurish and riddled with imperfections. Policy people will find it obscure and dense. That’s what you get when you translate between two languages and cultures.

The goal:

Each piece of the policy making process—the budgets, bills, votes, etc.—should originate as structured data, feeding directly into the information infrastructure that the transparency community creates. A budget should come out not just in paper and PDF versions, but as a data set containing all the meaning that exists in the physical documents.

Make sense? If not, you’ll want to get yourself to where it does.

Cameras, Crime, and Terrorism

The attempted bombing in Times Square brought terrorism and the capabilities of surveillance cameras to the top of the headlines this week. As I pointed out in my Politico piece, cameras have not proven an effective deterrent to terrorist attacks. Cameras are generally useful in piecing together the plot after the attack (not so much in this case, since police were looking for a middle-aged white man and not a young Pakistani male) and helped in this capacity in the Madrid, London, and Moscow commuter system bombings.

I discuss the usefulness of cameras in this podcast:

Whether cameras are helpful enough to justify massive spending to install more of them in New York is another matter. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to think so, even though it’s already been the site of significant surveillance funding from the federal government. Steve Chapman remains skeptical of them, and former NYPD counterterrorism cop Michael Sheehan is honest enough to admit that their value is in investigating attacks, not deterring them. London has a million cameras, making it the most heavily-surveilled city this side of Pyongyang. Though sold on a joint counterterrorism-crime rationale, they did not deter the 7/7 bombings and roughly 80% of crime in London goes unsolved. Of the cleared cases, roughly one in a thousand is a camera success story.

As Roger Pilon points out, cameras are useful in law enforcement operations outside of blanket surveillance. They can deter excessive use of force and other unlawful conduct by police officers or at least provide a means of punishing those responsible, as they did in the recent beating of University of Maryland student. Police officers realize this, and actively deter filming their questionable activities.

A camera is an honest cop’s best friend. It can provide a defense against groundless claims of brutality. At least eleven states and 500 local jurisdictions require that interrogations be videotaped. Beyond the protection of civil liberties and preventing false or coerced confessions, these videos make for highly probative evidence. The jury gets a window into the interrogation room. The defendant’s mannerisms, demeanor, and a lack of police coercion tied to the defendant’s statements make for good, and more transparent, policing.

HouseLive.gov Video: Wait and See

The potential of streaming video from the House of Representatives is so great that my first impression of the House’s new video offering, HouseLive.gov, has been disappointment. There is much room to improve HouseLive.gov, and I hope it will improve.

At first, I couldn’t find any video that was actually live. (That would inject a bit of irony into the name, eh?) But there is live video: On the homepage, scroll down to the top of the “Most Recent Sessions” chart. If the top of the list has an item called “In Progress,” the House is in session. Clicking the video link will get you live video from the House floor.

(Don’t be fooled by the “Subscribe to Live Feeds” box. Those are RSS feeds, which are “live”—as in regularly updated. They’re not live video or audio.)

Most people will probably access this from the House clerk’s familiar “Floor Summary” page, which has near-real-time updates about House activity. But that page says “Streaming video is not available for this session.” That’s a hiccup that should be easy to fix.

Selecting a past day, one can watch the video of that day, but in my early tests, you had to watch the video from the beginning. I don’t think many people are going to watch 10 hours of video to pick up their representative’s remarks on the bill to congratulate Camp Dudley of Westport, New York, on its 125th anniversary.

I’ve been testing in Firefox. In Internet Explorer, I got some links that do things. It appears you will be able to navigate around a day’s video based on the activity of the House. That is, you can jump to where the House began debate on the Camp Dudley bill.

Hopefully, the system will work in standards-compliant browsers, not only Microsoft’s. I note that the video currently plays only in Windows Media Player or Microsoft’s Silverlight. I’ll leave it to friends better versed in video to critique the selection of formats, but I have doubts about these two as being the best, and most open, available.

Beyond junctures in House debate, there should be more tagging to make the video useful. Not only should you be able to navigate via House activity, you should be able to navigate by bill number, and by member of Congress.

When you do navigate around, I don’t see that the “share” link changes. This needs fixing so that people can direct friends and colleagues to key portions of debates. In fact, you should be able to link to any point in the video. Ideally, there should be an embed function that allows defined segments of video to go into blog posts and such. That latter one is a big ask, but Congress is a big, important institution.

It’s early yet. Maybe these things are in the works or on the drawing board. Rolling HouseLive.go out in “beta,” getting feedback, and fixing it is A-OK. But sometimes government agencies set a course and have a hard time changing after that. The Thomas legislative system, brilliant as it was for 1995, still isn’t publishing bill data in good formats, and a private provider has had to take up the slack.

HouseLive.gov is better than nothing. It can be much, much better than it is.

University of Maryland Beating Editorial

The Washington Post has an excellent editorial on the beating that Prince George’s County officers gave University of Maryland student John J. McKenna. As I said in this post, the beating, and the false charges filed against McKenna, would never have resulted in the suspension of (and possible charges against) the officers involved without video that showed the officers’ unwarranted aggression. As the Post puts it:

Instead, it was not until the video surfaced this week that Prince George’s Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton learned of it, he said, adding that he was “outraged and disappointed.” Why wasn’t he “outraged and disappointed” that his own police had not come forward earlier to report the incident? After all, media reports at the time included eyewitness accounts of excessive police violence. Wasn’t it Chief Hylton’s responsibility to investigate those allegations? The unavoidable conclusion is that had there been no video, the conspiracy of police silence and coverup would have succeeded.

McKenna was fortunate that his family had the resources to hire a private investigator to find the video. Not everyone is so lucky, and it makes the case for changing Maryland’s unanimous consent law for recording conversations, as this case highlights. Laws that prevent the recording of interactions with police prevent transparency in what is supposed to be an open and free society.

House Procedure—and Transparency in Collapse

Over on the WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve laid out in the simplest terms I could what’s going on in terms of procedure with health care overhaul legislation. The post, called “What is Deeming, Anyway?”, comes in at a mere 900 words… If you’re a real public policy junkie, you might like it.

But what about the transparency oriented processes that President Obama and leaders like Speaker Pelosi promised the public? Recall that the Speaker promised to post the health care bill online for 72 hours before a vote back in September.

There was debate about whether she stuck to her promise then. And it was probably a one-time promise. It’s almost certain that she will not do so now. If she lines up the votes to pass the bill, the vote will happen. Right. Then.

What about President Obama’s promise to put health care negotiations on C-SPAN? The daylong roundtable debate on health care was an engaging illustration of what happens when you do transparent legislating. Voters got a clearer picture of where each side stands—and perhaps saw that there actually is some competence on both sides of the aisle. Some competence.

The health care negotiations going on right now are the ones that matter. This is when the most important details are being hammered out. This is when the bargaining that draws the public’s ire is happening. But I’m not seeing it on C-SPAN.

President Obama’s promise may have been naive, but that doesn’t excuse breaking it. The inside negotiations going on this week represent an ongoing violation of the president’s C-SPAN promise.

And there’s good reason to anticipate that the president will violate his Sunlight Before Signing promise as well. This was his promise to post bills online for five days after he receives them from Congress before signing them into law.

The reason why I’m so confident of a prospective violation—aside from the promise being flouted more often than not—is that the White House has posted the Senate-passed health care overhaul bill on the “Pending Legislation” page of Whitehouse.gov. H.R. 3590 as passed by the Senate is right there in among the bills Congress has passed, which are getting their five-day public review.

If the White House plans to argue that the health care overhaul legislation got the five-day public review President Obama promised, that will not fly at all.

The substance of the Sunlight Before Signing promise is to post bills for five days after Congress’ final vote. (I’ve recommended starting the clock at “presentment,” the formal constitutional step when the president receives a bill from Congress.)

Something other than that, such as posting the Senate bill before it passes the House—while failing to post the “fixer” bill for five days—would fundamentally violate the president’s transparency promise.

What an irony if all this were to happen this week, which, after all, is Sunshine Week!

The Health Care Debate on C-SPAN

Today, President Obama began to fulfill the promise that health care legislation would be hashed out on C-SPAN. His discussion with congressional leaders was broadcast on that cable channel and streamed live on the Internet. The nearly six-and-a-half hour-long meeting began to touch on many of the issues at stake in the health care area. 

I’ll leave observations about the merits to our experts, who live-blogged the morning session. I found a few things interesting from a transparency perspective:

The format was far more conducive to productive discussion than procedures for “debate” in Congress. What generally happens in the House and Senate is display of members’ and senators’ well-settled views.  So today interested Americans could get a real sense of the issues and how their representatives think about them.

There seemed to be a division between representatives who knew the technical subject matter and those who—for lack of a better phrase—knew the emotional subject matter. Surprisingly astute commentaries on fiscal realities were met with appeals to the story of one constituent or another—or of members’ own families’ health predicaments.

Though there was much talking past one another, these are all good things to see. It will inform the public, and a better informed public will make better decisions about health care legislation, about individual representatives, and about the proper role of government. 

I know how I feel about these things. (I’m soft-pedaling my views here as hard as I can…) My opinions didn’t change, though I adopted new nuances to my thinking.

It’s doubtful that many people’s opinions will change. But I’m confident that a more open process will lead to better results in many senses: specific policy results; electoral activity; and people’s overall sense of the role of government.

Today’s meeting only scratched the surface, of course. Sessions like this in the days and weeks to come will do more to improve the transparency of the lawmaking process, in this issue and hopefully others. Today’s transparency precedent is something that the president and federal lawmakers should not retreat from.