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Charges or smears? Disciplinary case takes ugly turn with unsubstantiated claims

When a Buffalo police officer facing a disciplinary hearing demanded that the proceedings in her case be open to the public, it was only right. The allegations that face Officer Cariol J. Horne, and those she has made in rebuttal, raise important questions about the functioning of the city's Police Department, questions that ought not be accepted or rejected in private.

But when the first day of the open hearing brought unsubstantiated -- and, so far, non-credible -- accusations that Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson was a drug abuser who had dodged at least one bust when police looked the other way, we were reminded that even the most justified call for open government can have its downside.

It can be difficult enough to convince the folks who run both government and private business that the light of day is the best place to conduct business. The fear that embarrassing, unsubstantiated, even downright untrue charges about individuals will be tossed about has long been a major justification for closing personnel matters to public scrutiny, even if the core of the proceedings is of public importance.

And the core of these particular proceedings is of great public importance. The people of Buffalo deserve to know, as much as possible, whether Horne is, as the department claims, an insubordinate loose cannon or, as she claims, a victim of a code of silence among police officers who didn't like her sticking up for a man who was, she says, being unjustly beaten by other officers.

But by lobbing this bomb at Gipson and, less directly, at the whole of the city's power structure, Horne and her attorneys have turned what should have been a serious review of police conduct into what now smacks of a media smear.

If the accusers have any real substance to back up their charges against the top cop, charges hotly denied and widely disbelieved, they had better be ready to present their evidence in full.

If they can't, Horne's police career will rightly be over, but Gipson's will carry a stain that, it appears, it does not deserve.

This is one of those negatives that can't be proven. Gipson cannot establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he has never abused illegal drugs. Neither can you. That's why our system demands that those who charge people with crimes carry the burden of proof.

If Horne and her supporters cannot come up with some real meat to put on the bare bones of their accusations, and do so very quickly, then they will not only have torpedoed their own case. They will also have done real damage to the credibility of the police commissioner, to the entire Buffalo Police Department and to the whole idea of doing the people's business in the open.

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