Sunday, November 18, 2007

Naming: privacy vs. the "public's right to know"

Do we have a right to know the identities of the four RCMP officers who killed Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport last month? I raised the issue in a previous post, and elsewhere, and have had some interesting responses. I hope we can get a few more.

The matter tends to be framed thus: no charges have been laid, so the officers have a right to privacy. But is this the right way to look at the question?

Let me note that I've never agreed wholeheartedly with the media's sweeping and self-interested claim that "the public have a right to know." No such "right" exists
, in my opinion. Moreover, I have always been critical of publishing the names of people who have been charged with a crime but not convicted. Acquittals of those same people often go unnoticed by the media, and a lingering cloud hangs over them, even though we are all supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. I far prefer the Dutch system of using initials.

That being said, however, I think we need to re-frame the issue. The police officers in question are highly visible, front-line public employees. Their actions will be investigated in the public interest. These officers freely chose a kind of public life in which their actions are (theoretically) open to scrutiny by other parties, and in which they are (theoretically) accountable for their actions. I am not convinced that they have an absolute right to privacy when it is precisely their public role that is at issue.

Moreover, the media are simply not being consistent. What of the "public interest" in this case? The video that has horrified millions--four officers repeatedly shocking a distressed, unarmed man, and then putting their full weight on him, including a knee on his neck, until he was dead--could reasonably make ordinary citizens apprehensive about RCMP officers in general. The officers in question have been "reassigned," but are they in contact with the public? Are they still doing front-line work? What of officers who had nothing to do with the killing of Dziekanski? Should they come under public suspicion as well, as they carry out their responsibilities, because of the anonymity granted their co-workers?

All the public knows, at this point, is that four uniformed officers brutally killed a man, effectively before our very eyes, and that they may still be performing a public role. Is it not in the public interest, under these unique circumstances, for us to know who they are? If not, why not?

UPDATE: (November 19)

The four officers are apparently off the streets -- ironically, to "guarantee their personal safety," as public anger mounts in BC.

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