"Transparency" should be a guiding principle for all aspects of a democratic government. All elected bodies and government agencies must remember that their power comes from the people and they ultimately are responsible to the public for whatever actions they take.
The word "transparency" came up last week in connection with a discussion about Lawrence police operations and the possibility of forming a citizens review board for the police department. One of the reasons City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said he might consider such a board was that he had received a number of public "comments about transparency" in the department.
There are many ways to achieve transparency, and a citizens review board may not be the right one for Lawrence, but this discussion provides a timely reminder that law enforcement agencies build public confidence when they are as open as possible about their operations.
There are, of course, many legitimate reasons for law enforcement agencies to withhold information, but there also are many legitimate reasons for the public to have information about police operations. Public accountability of government and law enforcement is a key element that separates our democracy from totalitarian regimes whose secret police forces operate outside the public eye.
American law enforcement agencies face some special challenges at this point in our history. Difficult economic times tend to feed discontent that can place more pressure on law enforcement. The Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism laws also have raised public concerns about civil rights and how law enforcement agencies operate.
In that environment, it's even more important for law enforcement agencies at all levels to try to show the public they have nothing to hide. They do that by providing as much information as possible about the work they do and responding promptly and openly to questions and complaints about police operations. An ombudsman or a citizens review board might identify ways to improve communication or improve police operations, but the same transparency also can occur when elected officials and law enforcement leaders take seriously the principle that they are public servants and that the public is their ultimate boss.
Law enforcement officers don't deserve to be second-guessed about every decision they make in the dangerous venues in which they operate, but providing timely information and data - being transparent - can only increase public support for the important work they do.