Staying Informed During an Election Year [08-28-08]

Election years underscore the critical importance of a public that is well informed about major policy issues.  A casual understanding of salient political issues is simply not adequate.  A superficial understanding of public policy will do little to ensure that our diverse interests are represented equitably; it will not guarantee that our laws are drafted intelligently.  A fleeting, cursory public understanding of policy will not encourage our public servants to hold fast to their obligations to meet crises effectively and to participate responsibly in international affairs. 

Fortunately, an informed electorate has traditionally been recognized as a basic American political value.  A hallmark of our democracy is that we have made the people “the primary control on the government,” to borrow a phrase from James Madison’s Federal number 51.  Our governments—state as well as national—identify an informed electorate as an interest of vital importance and feature guarantees of free speech and of a free press in their constitutions.  They have also enacted a wide variety of specific measures to assist the public in becoming fully informed about the operation of government and about the issues their governments address.

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was enacted specifically because “[a] democratic society requires an informed, intelligent electorate.”  The 89th Congress had recognized a need to rebalance the “right of the public to know” and the “need of the Government to keep information in confidence” in some limited circumstances.1  The Freedom of Information Act has had a major impact in ensuring public access to governmental records.  States have followed the 1966 Act and enacted their own freedom of information laws.

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Remembering the False Arrest Scandal that Rocked the New York City Transit Police

In the early 1980s several men—almost all of most of whom were Black or Hispanic—fell victim to a false arrest scheme.  The wrongful arrest scheme was perpetrated by several New York City transit police officers.  Typically false accusations were made of sexual abuse on the New York City subways.1  The scheme seems to have been aimed at keeping the officers’ arrest numbers high and thereby ensuring that they would continue to enjoy benefits associated with their assignment to a prestigious plainclothes unit.2

Arrests are routinely accompanied by entries in memo books and arrest reports.  It was an internal investigation based, initially, on these records that originally brought the false arrest scheme to light.

The officers involved would often base arrests on allegations of frottage—rubbing against a non-consenting person—for sexual arousal.  Officer Alphonse Iannacone, for instance, arrested one man for standing behind, and rubbing against a twelve-year-old girl.  Iannacone’s partner, Mary McDermott, had taken down the girl’s name and address.  McDermott told an adult friend—who was accompanying the child—that a man had been observed rubbing against her.3

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