EDITORIAL: Who watches the watchmen?

When Anchorage Police Department Chief Michael Kerle announced a new directive in January that henceforth, the department would publicly disclose when an APD officer was arrested, the first thought for many was probably, “Great! That’s just what should be happening.” The second thought, following closely after: “Wait, why has that not already been happening — and how many unannounced officer arrests have there been?”

The answer to that latter question, in part, is that there had been at least three recently — one that was first caught by reporters at Alaska’s News Source in early January, in which an off-duty officer was pulled over for impaired driving on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, plus two more similar arrests in 2022 and 2023 that went unremarked and unreported. According to the department, those two hadn’t been announced because the department’s “internal communications were faulty,” and its community relations unit wasn’t made aware of the charges. But it’s worth asking: Without reporters independently finding out about the most recent arrest, would the other two have been divulged? Would the chief’s transparency-minded directive have been issued? It’s hard to make a credible case that either would have happened.

And that, ultimately, is a fundamental issue with blind trust in the institutions we establish to maintain bedrock societal functions like public safety: Without independent oversight, it’s all too easy for information to be withheld, whether by accident or design. And withholding information leads to mistrust and rumor, a breach in the contract between the public and peacekeepers: that we endow them with the exclusive use of force in pursuit of upholding the laws, provided they do so faithfully and without extending privilege or disfavor to any part of the community they serve — including those within their own ranks. This means conduct at all times that is above reproach and never above the law, and when it is, we have a right to know about it.

A directive from the chief of police is a good step toward rebuilding trust that the department will inform the public when its own members break the law. But a directive is only in effect for as long as the chief considers it effective — Kerle could decide tomorrow that actually, he has no interest in letting community members know when an off-duty officer drives drunk. It would be better to have the policy that officer arrests be made public be enacted in municipal code, such that it would remain in effect even if Kerle — or whoever succeeds him as chief — had a change of heart. It would, in fact, also make an excellent state law, given the number of instances in which officers in rural communities have criminal records that undermine public trust in law enforcement.

Kudos to Chief Kerle for making the right choice, after the fact, about disclosing officer arrests. Our municipal and state lawmakers should take up that accountability mindset and draft broader laws that ensure public disclosure of such incidents is ongoing without regard to whether every chief of police is equally transparency-minded.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.