Police departments commit a dangerous error in judgment by refusing to release the names of officers who are apprehended for drunken driving. Such subterfuge drives a wedge between the police and the public, crushing the credibility of law enforcement.
The Globe encountered several police departments, including Boston and Newton, that attempted to withhold information — normally available under public records law — about off-duty drunken driving incidents by police, including crashes. Last year, Boston Police claimed it was too dark to conduct a sobriety test on an officer who crashed into a parked car in Jamaica Plain.
A justice system that places police officers above the law invites anger and contempt. The reluctance — beyond reason — of grand juries to hand up indictments against officers who shoot unarmed civilians has driven thousands of people to the streets in protest. It’s not likely that people will react as strongly to reports of “professional courtesies” shown by police who encounter intoxicated, off-duty officers behind the wheel. But the result is the same: Loss of confidence in the men and women who have sworn to uphold the law without bias.
Boston Police are peddling the notion that releasing the names of officers involved in drunken driving cases would violate the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information law. The chief lawyers for the Walsh administration — for the most part — didn’t buy it. Neither did attorneys who specialize in the First Amendment and public records laws. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh had plenty of ammunition to push back against the recalcitrant police department. But he weakly deferred the decision to the police, turning his back on the public in the process.
Some Massachusetts residents are likely to encounter sobriety checkpoints this New Year’s Eve. By failing to properly police and report their own, officers signal that a two-tier system of justice is in place. And once such suspicions enter the public’s mind, trust in law enforcement is the first victim.