Secrecy & public Safety

Policing is different than other areas of government. Few would object to putting all of the Zoning Board’s policies online, or those of an Animal Shelter. But for policing, it’s more complicated.

There are some aspects of policing that we should all know about. For example, the public has a right to know a department’s policies on consent searches or the use of force, or just basic information about who to call for help with various problems. After all, it is the community that is being policed, and the police are here to serve (and protect).

But there are some aspects of policing that have to remain confidential, such as the protocol for dealing with an active shooter, or for protecting the identity of informants.

Details vs Policy

It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Some communities and departments may reach different conclusions than others.

We at the Policing Project believe there is a simple guiding principle that can help departments draw the line, while making sure the community has what it needs to know: when deciding what to make public, the key distinction is between operational details and governing policy.

Operational details concern specific investigations and the techniques used to conduct those investigations. In short: operational details are the things that, if made public, would allow people to circumvent the police or the law.

In contrast, governing policies are rules that direct the use of those specific techniques.  These can be made public without undermining officer safety or undercutting the policy's ability to investigate crime.

Governing Rules Operational Details
What technologies a department regularly uses Procedure for installing a listening device
General procedures governing confidential informants Identities of informants and how they will be protected
Existence of SWAT team and general guidelines, such as use and weaponry Active shooter protocols

Again, although operational details are sometimes properly kept from the public, governing policies should be public, and published.

Even when departments choose to keep a certain policy offline, it is important to address whatever is omitted. Departments do this in different ways.