Justice talks need maximum openness

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Our local elected officials, law enforcement leaders and representatives of the Iowa Justice Alliance and NAACP currently are engaged in a critical, potentially far-reaching community conversation.

Ongoing talks between these leaders and groups on law enforcement and judicial policies are a reasoned, constructive reaction to the tragic events of nearly a year ago, when a white Cedar Rapids police officer, Lucas Jones, shot and paralyzed a black motorist, Jerime Mitchell, during a scuffle following a traffic stop. A grand jury exonerated the officer, but that process left behind troubling questions about how the case was handled by prosecutors and police.

The goal of these talks is to establish a mediation process that could lead to a memorandum of understanding between local governments, law enforcement, prosecutors and groups seeking changes in policy and practices. At the core of these discussions are “12 Steps for Addressing Justice in Cedar Rapids,” a series of proposals backed by the Justice Alliance and NAACP. Many of the proposals, including the appointment of independent investigators and prosecutors in the wake of an officer-involved shooting, have merits worth exploring.

But a proposed mediation agreement, which has yet to be signed by the parties, includes a provision closing all sessions to the media and public. The draft agreement leaves open the possibility that “experts or observers” may be allowed to attend meetings. Although The Gazette’s Michaela Ramm has been allowed to observe some of the initial talks, The Gazette and other media were barred from Wednesday’s meeting.

The U.S. Justice Department’s role in leading possible mediation looms over the question of who can be allowed to observe these important talks. But we urge local leaders to push for as much openness, transparency and public access as is legally possible.

The topics being discussed at these sessions are important public policy issues, with key public officials, including elected leaders, at the table. The public should be allowed access to these discussions, or be able to track the process through the news media. And if some members of the public are allowed to observe, there’s no reasonable rationale, in our view, for shutting out the media.

Considering this process is encouraging more transparency in the work of law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts, we believe closing its discussions could undermine that worthy objective. A more open process will lend credibility to its outcome, and better inform members of the public who, ultimately, must hold officials accountable for meeting its goals.

It may be argued any final agreement reached by the talks will be made public, so access to deliberations isn’t necessary. But if no final agreement is reached, it’s just as important for the public to know why these important discussions failed to find common ground. A closed door leaves us in the dark.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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