Government Transparency Works—And We Need More Of It

An analysis released two years ago by two professors reviewed the effect that freedom of information laws, or “open records” laws, had on corruption. Utah’s version of this law is called the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), and the study’s authors conclude that laws such as this have “two offsetting effects: reducing corruption levels and increasing the probability that corrupt acts are detected.” This type of transparency has the effect, according to the study, of “reducing the rate at which [government officials] commit corrupt acts by about forty percent.”

These types of laws allow citizens to discover illegal, unethical, or controversial acts after they have been committed, following a paper trail to discover spending, correspondence, or other information that can help bring problems to light and potentially punish the government official. However, another type of government transparency is important, and it helps deter abuse of power before it happens.

The city of Rialto, California, outfitted each of its 70 police officers with cameras beginning in 2012, becoming a leader in the law enforcement community in the use of body cameras by officers. A study of Rialto’s law enforcement practices before and after the implementation of these recording devices produced an astounding result: public complaints against officers dropped by 88%, and the use of force by officers fell by 60%.

The city’s police chief, Tony Farrar, explained the reason: “When you know you’re being watched you behave a little better. That’s just human nature. As an officer you act a bit more professional, follow the rules a bit better.”

Technology facilitates transparency, enabling citizens to better hold elected officials and government agents accountable. These individuals are delegated and trusted with significant power over the life, liberty, and property of the individuals they are supposed to serve. Finding new and efficient ways to keep them in check is something every person should support.

This same thirst for transparency led the Utah legislature to pass our proposed legislation earlier this year, bringing some sunlight to the use of extreme force by officers. Beginning this year, law enforcement agencies around the state are required to compile and report all sorts of statistics regarding forcible entry home raids (no knock warrants, for example) and SWAT team deployments: the nature of the alleged crime, the judge who signed the warrant, the time of day the warrant was served, whether anybody was injured, how many shots were fired, etc. The aggregate data will help policy makers better understand the use of this raw power—and importantly, knowing that they will be transparently reporting such information, the new law may serve as a deterrent against the unlawful or unreasonable use of force.

Importantly, transparency hurts the bad actors while justifying the good ones; an open records request can absolve a government agent who is wrongfully accused of something, and a video recording can show that a police officer following the law did nothing wrong when a contrary claim is made. Only those who are abusing their position of trust have anything to worry about.

Fortunately, there is a healthy appetite for transparency in Utah; as the Governor has stated, “we have made great strides toward more openness and transparency in government… But we will not back off our commitment to do better.” Accordingly, Utahns can expect to see more transparency-based proposals in the near future.