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Editorial: Going to court to ensure the public remains in darkness

Editorial: Going to court to ensure the public remains in darkness

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St. Louis police investigate shooting homicide in Fox Park

St. Louis police officers and detectives investigate a homicide scene where a man was shot and killed in the Fox Park neighborhood of St. Louis on Jan. 3.

Photo by Daniel Shular, dshular@post-dispatch.com

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration seem adamant about not sharing public information with the public. They would rather fight in court — at taxpayer expense — to prevent the public from having access to homicide-clearance data that would help the public gauge the department’s performance. All St. Louisans should be concerned when their leadership is willing to go to court to continue keeping citizens in the dark.

At issue is a lawsuit by Minnesota Public Radio to access basic crime data that the department had previously shared with The Washington Post without protest. It’s important for the public to know how many homicides have been resolved, preferably by ensuring that dangerous people no longer pose a threat. If clearance rates are low, members of the public have every reason to ask why so many killers remain on the loose, free to kill again.

The Washington Post and Minnesota Public Radio collect such data from law enforcers across the country to help determine which crime-fighting strategies are working and which ones aren’t. The last time St. Louis homicide-clearance numbers were shared publicly, they indicated an abysmally low performance rate. The city’s homicide rate hit a 30-year high in 2020, yet the homicide-clearance rate dropped that year, with only 36% of cases cleared.

Despite having shared homicide-clearance data with The Washington Post four years ago, the department refused when Minnesota Public Radio and its parent company, American Public Media, requested the most recent clearance data. The radio network sued in November, asserting that the department is violating Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

In a Dec. 30 motion, City Counselor Sheena Hamilton, a Jones appointee, argued that Minnesota Public Radio doesn’t have standing because it is not based in Missouri and is not a person. The Sunshine Law states: “Any aggrieved person” or taxpayer or Missouri citizen “may seek judicial enforcement” of the Sunshine Law’s requirements. Hamilton wants a state circuit court to dismiss the lawsuit instead of letting it proceed to trial.

She argues that the dictionary definition of a “person” is what should apply, meaning that the law applies only to human beings, not corporations. However, the U.S. Supreme Court found in its controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling that corporations are people, too, and deserve equal protection under the 14th Amendment. And nowhere in the Sunshine Law is “aggrieved person” restricted to Missourians only.

Hamilton’s argument ignores Supreme Court precedent as well as the city’s own precedent of having given to The Washington Post (a non-human corporation not based in Missouri) what it refuses to give to Minnesota Public Radio.

That seems like a lot of fuss and taxpayer expense — by an administration supposedly committed to greater transparency — just to keep the public from assessing how well or poorly the police department is performing.

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