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Don't muzzle police officers Gipson's rule trumps Brown's promise, irresponsibly limits public information

Not long ago, Mayor Byron W. Brown provided The Buffalo News with a list of Police Department employees who could speak with reporters. The rule then was not "no one below the rank of deputy commissioner."

Yet that is the standard Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson is applying in taking disciplinary action against a detective who spoke with The News about previous crimes committed by a teenager accused of assaulting a Williamsville South High School student.

Detective Mark J. Lauber isn't always the easiest cop for reporters to get along with, but he did the public a favor when he told a News staffer about Curtis Byers' involvement with an August 2007 armed robbery in Buffalo, as well as a June 2007 arson that nearly killed a Buffalo firefighter. For his trouble, Lauber is now threatened with anything from a reprimand to suspension.

This is not only ridiculous -- and for reasons that go beyond Brown's pledge to The News -- but dangerous. It's a policy that irresponsibly restricts the timeliness with which reporters can alert the public about crimes in their neighborhoods.

And it gets worse, because the more police officials clamp down on cops' ability to talk, the more secretive the force becomes. That creates the kind of insular culture that breeds corruption regardless of the setting. It's not because these are police officers, it's just a fact of human nature.

What is more, Lauber didn't even talk to The News about a Buffalo case. The attack occurred in Williamsville. That means the police brass are trying to limit what cops can say to anyone about any case, anywhere.

The departmental charges also say -- preposterously -- that Lauber had jeopardized the "defendant's right to a fair trial." That information was going to come out, regardless. The public has a right to that information and reporters in this town know how to do their work.

There is a broader concern, as well, and it spreads to the entire Brown administration. City officials routinely violate the state Freedom of Information Law by refusing to provide public documents to news outlets in a timely fashion. The Police Department's action against Lauber is of a piece with its near-paranoid insistence on controlling everything -- whether it can do so within the bounds of the law or not.

The Police Department should drop this matter and give cops the freedom to speak that they had under former Commissioner Rocco Diina. It also should encourage the mayor to obey the law on access to public records.

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