Democracy Requires Transparency in Policing

Only through transparency can power be held accountable.

Our Colorado Democracy Intern, Ashley, shares her insights on transparency in policing.

Colorado Common Cause fights for open, accessible, accountable government, and we know that transparency is a requirement for democracy. Only through transparency can power be held accountable. The Aurora Police Department continues to fail to fulfill its duty to be transparent to the public, and this is a major barrier to fair and representative democracy for the community of Aurora. As a young person from this community, it is clear to me that change cannot wait.

Nationwide, there are widespread instances of missing data and inability to access body cam footage when police departments are accused of misuse of force or citizens’ rights violations. Even with the growing use of body cam footage, deep-rooted trust issues between the community and police persist that are deeply rooted complex in power, racism, and bias. 

Having a transparent system means more than ensuring that public information is readily and easily accessible. In practice, it also applies to the conduct of our public servants who are carrying out the people’s business, “including whether they encourage or suppress criticism and dissenting viewpoints, whether they share or conceal unflattering information and conflicts of interest, and whether they acknowledge or disregard their motivations and biases” ( Organizing Engagement). This is critical when understanding the detrimental impacts that the Aurora Police have had in handling the case of Jor’Dell Richardson, a 14-year-old boy that APD shot and killed in June.

I worked closely with Jor’Dell’s cousin, JayJay Reed, during the 2023 Colorado Legislative Session. As a powerful advocate for reform, he provided moving testimony in support of two criminal system reform bills I was working on at the time. This summer, it was my turn to act as his advocate, as I walked alongside him in a protest for the loss of the life of his young cousin. 

The inability to access information puts a genuine strain on families, in every way and every aspect of the system. For JayJay and his family, and not having access to information forced them to live in a state of constant disbelief and confusion. It forced them to delay his memorial and compounded their pain and suffering.  In the words of JayJay himself, “the police knew the moment that my cousin threw that gun that it was fake. They knew it was plastic, there was no way for them not to know, especially when they picked it up. They would feel how lightweight it was, that it was a toy. They made us wait for a week before telling us what we already knew.” Jor’Dell was shot and killed, unarmed and pleading for his life, after the gun was inspected and he had been tackled to the ground.

JayJay hopes that one day, “we have a system that is more fair and that allows citizens to more easily access their public servants.” 

The inability to have access to information is not only putting a strain on impacted families and our Colorado communities, but it has also prevented us from making positive systemic changes within the system. 

It’s not just about when a member of our community is shot and killed by police. It’s the fact that we’ve had 5 new police chiefs and the lack of transparency into intra-departmental happenings that have led to these shifts. It’s a lack of access to our public servants and understanding of leadership changes. It’s a lack of clarity on how funding is being spent within the police department itself. Upon researching how the Aurora Police Department utilizes its funding, there are several websites and police trackers that will break this down, but none are available on the Aurora police department itself. In this, there are barriers to convenience and accessibility, with the inability to find vital information creating barriers to the information itself. Simply put, this is the information we deserve to have access to.  

Police have lost trust among communities, and particularly among communities of color, due to legacies of brutality and corruption; this distrust is only amplified when they fail to hold themselves accountable. Transparency alone won’t solve these deep-rooted issues – our call for clear communication and accessible information is just one component of the large-scale change that needs to take place. Still, families cannot begin to heal and advocates cannot effectively improve the system if we don’t have the information we need to fully understand the problem.

If the Aurora Police Department wants to begin healing its relationship with the community, it needs to develop more humane and ethical lines of communication with the public.

Lack of transparency is a direct barrier to democracy, and establishing clear and swift communication with the community, starting with impacted families, is the only way forward. Going further, better communication around the use of funds, leadership changes, and other decisions APD makes every day that impact our communities can create opportunities for engagement and deepened trust. 

Systemic change is urgently needed, and we cannot make changes in systems we do not fully understand led by public servants we have little access to.

Ashley Garcia Torres is a community organizer, advocate, and aspiring attorney who served as Colorado Common Cause’s Fall 2023 Democracy Intern.

She is currently a Regis University student pursuing her bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology and hopes to work towards creating a more just and equitable future.