Police Board in Catch-22 with chief

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lewisburg's police chief sought and we yielded to his request for a private report to the city's Police Advisory Board on Thursday last week when he advised the panel there was a police investigation into the conduct of an officer who subsequently decided to retire.

The decision to acquiesce so the panel could meet without an independent observer was based, in part, on the belief that we would eventually know what was reported that night. As it turns out, our report in Wednesday's edition included much more than what the board was told.

Lewisburg is, gracefully, a small town that frequently proves that Chronicle is a good name for newspapers in places like this since we might simply be chronicling what many folks already know. One of our predecessors likes to say if you get information from the factories' rumor mill, you might as well just go ahead and write the story because they know what's happening. Remarkably, there's a contingent of city residents who already knew more than what the police board was told. Some of those folks are in jail.

Having come clean about our lack of stamina to be at all of the stories we write, it's time to more publicly repeat what we told the board and maybe a little more.

State law calls for public panels to conduct their business in public. It's the open meetings law. There's a companion law, the Sunshine Law, which requires government records to be public documents available for all to see. An exception to the Sunshine Law permits police to keep records of active investigations as working papers that aren't available to the public.

It seems as though the exception to the open records act has been extended to the open meetings law. Neither law has such a provision and the police board was told that what was about to happen would be wrong. The board was also told that our Friday edition last week was already on the press and there was no way to publish a story about the chief's report until the next edition on Wednesday this week. With promises that we'd be advised in time for that, we left.

Now, we wonder if there's a Catch-22 to these circumstances. By advising the police board about the investigation, was the chief jeopardizing the sanctioned exception to the public records act? If not, then why was privacy needed? Are the police board bylaws creating this awkward situation for the chief? If he's required to tell the board about a situation that could result in an employee's demotion, dismissal, and now (because of a recent decision by the City Council) lateral transfers, couldn't that put him in the ungainly position of revealing something about an on-going investigation? Wasn't that what happened Thursday night last week?

To cap things off, the board held closed meetings to interview applicants for police chief and those meetings resulted in the selection of the man hired to run the department.

These are circumstances voters might have in mind this spring and they might want to discuss them with candidates in the May 5 city election. Remarkably, one incumbent running for re-election is unopposed, and he's the new member of the police board.

The bright side of this story is that we've been able to tell it and that there are plenty of people attending City Council meetings - more than we've seen in other city and town halls in south central Tennessee since August of 1980. Maybe more people should attend police board meetings.

Meanwhile, there's a tradition here of having civilian control over the police. It's not necessarily political control, although some steps have been taken to be politically correct. The City Council has also lowered the speed limit on at least two streets by 10 mph because it's widely believed that speeding tickets aren't issued unless the offense is for more than 10 mph over the posted limit. t appears to be a clever way to get motorists to drive only so fast.

And there's an analogy we've heard and will repeat again. City Hall is to the Police Department as the White House is to the Pentagon. Now, there's a consistent American approach to things, assuming it's applied equally.

Lewisburg is, gracefully, a lot like Mayberry, the fictitious town in the Andy Griffith Show. Nevertheless, the details of reality are a lot more interesting than the half-hour TV show.