Scott Johnson Open Government Essay Contest.

Scott Johnson Open Government Essay Contest

2021 Winner:

Government Records — Advancing the Cause of Justice

by Merik Robles, Archbishop Murphy High School

Identify an event or issue where open government meetings or records helped advance the cause of justice. Explain how this government transparency made a difference in the public’s understanding and how people were held accountable for their actions.

The incidences of police use of force against people of color and the public reckoning and examination of these incidents is a prime example of how transparency of government has been critical to advancing the cause of justice. Washington State’s Public Records Act states that, “The people…do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them….do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know” (RCW 42.56.030). The public has the right to know how police use their power and to examine the appropriateness of policing tactics and use of force.

The killing of Manuel Ellis in March 2020 while in police custody is a local incident where public records shed light on a deadly police encounter. The initial investigation of the incident found that there had been no violation of police policies, that Mr. Ellis was the aggressor and had unfortunately passed away. The police department argued that a chokehold was not used to restrain Mr. Ellis. However, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report was eventually released and ruled his death a homicide. While the Tacoma Police Department was not equipped with body cameras at the time of the incident, videos taken by witnesses also contradicted the narrative from the police department.

As a result of public records, the public was able to become informed about the true narrative about what happened to Mr. Ellis, an independent investigation into the incident was ordered by Governor Inslee and Mr. Ellis’ family has filed a $30 million dollar lawsuit against the Tacoma Police Department. The independent investigation by the Washington State Patrol gathered eyewitness statements and videos providing an alternative insight into the altercation. It is now with the Attorney General’s Office to make a determination on whether or not any of the involved police officers will face charges.

Mr. Ellis’ death illustrates the importance of government transparency. Without the Public Records Act, Manuel Ellis would have been remembered as just another criminal, rather than a victim of unjust police officers. Fortunately, the medical examiner’s office offered an honest finding regarding his death. If the government did not put a focus on transparency, then stories of cases just like Mr. Ellis’ would be misinterpreted and provide people with false

information. In today’s politically charged atmosphere, accuracy and facts are of the utmost importance. If governmental agencies are not transparent and open with its citizens, then they do not truly have freedom.

Pending the Attorney General’s review of the independent investigation, it is likely that the perpetrators of this blatant crime towards Manuel Ellis will be held accountable for their actions. The mayor of Tacoma herself has called for the officers to be fired and prosecuted for what they did to Mr. Ellis. Additionally, as a direct result of Mr. Ellis’ tragic death, a bill to create a database of all police use of force incidents in Washington has just been signed into law.

Allowing more transparency into policing is the public’s right. It will serve to improve the public’s trust in the police and supports the intent of the Washington State Public Records Act in that they people do not yield their sovereignty.