Gov. Andrew Cuomo has never been a fan of open government, and we’ve written about the governor’s shortcomings in this area repeatedly.
So when the state budget was passed last week with a measure allowing the police to withhold mug shots of those arrested, those of us who value transparency and open government breathed a sigh of relief.
Not because we believed in this limitation, but because it could have been worse.
The governor initially proposed amendments to the state’s Freedom of Information Law that would have categorized any information about an arrest, including mug shots, as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, making it almost impossible for the public to know about it unless a police agency deemed it in their best interests.
We found that chilling.
So if your neighbor is arrested for rape, you night not ever know about it.
If the school bus driver is accused of driving while intoxicated, it might be hidden from the public.
If the county sheriff’s brother-in-law or a high-ranking political figure in the community was arrested, it might be conveniently swept under the rug.
Or if one of the governor’s aides was accused of a crime — and we know that happens — it could remain hidden from the general public.
Maybe that last example was a cheap shot, but we’re struggling with the governor’s motivation for making all arrests off-limits to the public.
The excuse was that there are mug shot websites that have been accused of trying to extort money from people to keep their arrest photo off the internet.
If that is the motivation, we believe there are far better ways to combat that problem than covering up all arrests.
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That’s why we consider the banning of mug shots the lesser of two evils.
The New York State Police have already begun doing this.
But in a bit of good news this week, we learned that a number of county sheriffs around the state don’t plan on changing their policies. Warren County Sheriff Bud York and Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy both said they will not change their practice of providing mug shots.
The information is safe locally, for now.
Murphy pointed out that releasing mug shots to the public has helped his agency in countless investigations where witnesses came forward after seeing photos of the accused.
York accused the governor of having a policy to protect criminals.
The New York State Sheriffs Association advised local sheriffs around the state that there was nothing in the law that required an adjustment to their policies, saying that the new law did not make mug shots “confidential.”
But obviously that was the intent of the law.
It isn’t unusual for the Legislature to come up with language that is less than precise in a new law in their rush to pass the state budget. We’re hoping the Legislature — maybe Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec can lead the charge — can go back and get the language clarified, so there is no doubt about why arrest information needs to remain in the public realm.
While we appreciate both sheriffs taking a stand for transparency, we are concerned that they are standing up to a law they just don’t like. After all, it is their job to enforce the law, not interpret it. We’d feel better if everyone is on the same page regarding what the law means.
Ultimately, county sheriffs are charged with enforcing the laws of the state. It should also be clear to them what those laws mean.