Where this article gets it wrong is using the assumption that the job makes the cops nuts. No. Wrong. The Fairfax County Police largely hire lunatics who are already nuts.
By Doreen Gentzler, Christina Romano, Perkins Broussard and Sarah Cammarata
The suicide of a Fairfax County police officer last year is igniting change within the department and highlighting the increased risk of depression among law enforcement officers.
Mandatory suicide prevention training and greater awareness in the department aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues and police officers.
A Changing Minds project earlier this year prompted the officer’s family to share their similar story with NBC4. In March, an NBC study revealed new results on the stigma attached to mental health issues in fire departments.
Jennifer Basham lost her brother, Tony Basham, to suicide Aug. 28, when he shot himself.
The siblings joined the police department together more than 20 years ago. Tony Basham started as a detective and 2nd Lt. Jennifer Basham works as the chief flight officer for the helicopter.
She and her brother called each other frequently to talk about different things that happened on the job.
"We were actually a coping system for each other at times, because we knew each other could understand," Basham said.
After losing her main support system, Basham finds it hard to talk about her brother's death.
"It’s taking me a long time to even begin to come to terms with it, and so as I tear up, I’m just starting," Basham said, holding back tears.
She said her colleagues in the helicopter unit have been a large source of support during this tough time.
"I think there are changes being made in the department in a positive way to help others," Basham said.
Police work is dangerous and stressful, but in Tony Basham’s case, no one knew how much he was struggling. The tendency to bottle up emotions is common for many police officers.
"We have a tendency to normalize traumatic things, because if you don’t, you can’t get through it every day," Basham said.
Basham said police officers are forced to witness horrific events and move on very quickly. Yet, ignoring these events could be part of the problem, she said.
"You have to say that this is an issue," she said.
Basham’s mother, Cynthia Basham, is also struggling to cope with her son’s death.
"Police officer personality is that you can fix it and that you’re tough," she said.
"Saying, 'I can’t handle it,' they feel like it’s a sign of weakness, when it’s really not," she continued.
She also thinks a stigma surrounding mental health issues makes officers question how admitting their troubles will negatively affect their career.
Since Tony Basham's death, the Virginia police department created a suicide prevention video, part of mandatory training for all employees.
Cynthia Basham hopes their efforts will make people feel more comfortable asking for help with mental health problems.
"Maybe another family won’t have an empty chair at the dinner table because they are actively going forward with support," she said.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Jennifer’s new puppy, is offerring her some comfort, too. He was a gift from a colleague, who knew she was having trouble sleeping.
Jennifer also started to see a counselor and she is encouraged by how much the therapy has helped so far. Even so, she said it’s a very long and hard journey ahead.
"The thing that I wish my brother could have remembered was hope and that’s my goal for other officers, for them to always have hope that it will get better," she said.
By David Kerr
It’s a Saturday night and you’re in Northern Virginia, or in a host of localities around the country and you’re just driving. The destinations of drivers at that time of evening are as endless as the characters and personalities of those behind the wheel. Anything from dropping in on a favorite nightspot, going out to see a movie or, as teenagers still do, cruising. Some things don’t change.
There is a wonderful freedom about that ability to get in the car and just go. However, while you might assume that you are the only one that knows you’re at a certain spot or taking a particular route, that’s not necessarily so.
Thanks to license plate readers and big data computing, the police may know it too.
The technology of license plate reading has gotten better and better over the years. I remember a friend of mine who lost his car at an airport out West years ago.
He was in economy lot A or B, he didn’t remember, and both were massive parking lots. Oh, and it was snowing.
But he knew his license tag number and, by providing proof of who he was, the airport police told him where his car was and graciously gave him a lift.
Major airports keep regular imagery of all vehicle license plates on their property. Fair enough. In the post 9/11 world we accept quite a bit of intrusive technology.
But still, do police in Fairfax, for example, need to know that I was at the intersection of Route 50 and Little River Turnpike last Monday evening at nine?
Many police departments use license plate reading cameras, most attached to a patrol car, either moving or stationary, on a regular basis. In some cases there is a purpose. They have a specific crime to investigate, and they want to see if the criminal’s plate comes up.
Other times, for all practical purposes, they just take pictures. Millions of them. Los Angeles, for example, records up to 1.2 million license plate images a week. They really want to know who was where and when — even if there isn’t a clear reason for knowing why.
Therein lies the troubling part. Should police be able to record, by virtue of our license plates, our location at a specific time when they don’t have any particular reason for doing so?
It’s a good question, but it’s a widespread practice.
Fairfax County police for example collect a lot of license plate imagery. It’s a big county and it has its share of crime, but why the widespread collection of data?
Some of the answer may be in looking for patterns, thereby identifying cars that might have been near a crime. Or maybe they are trying to keep tabs on a suspect car.
But taking pictures of thousands of license plates is a sweeping way of gathering evidence. It also allows police, thanks to modern computing and pattern recognition so ware, to have a special insight, not necessarily welcomed, into where we go and the way we live.
For the record, Stafford County, where I live, a more live and let live kind of place, has one license plate camera mounted on a patrol car.
According to Sheri David Decatur its effectiveness in catching criminals is marginal. It sometimes helps them track down a criminal or stolen car, but that’s mostly on the larger throughways such as U.S. 17 and Garrisonville Road. Also, in the interest of privacy, the county deletes the data after 30 days. Chalk one up for Stafford County.
But not so for some of the bigger players. Los Angeles keeps their millions upon millions of license plate images for as long as five years. Fairfax keeps its considerable license plate library for up to a year, and Prince William and Arlington for up to six months.
But there are some challenges to this disconcerting practice. One recent lawsuit that made it to the Virginia Supreme Court argued that a license plate is personally identifiable information (PII). A little like a Social Security number. The court went along with this notion and sent it back to the lower courts for further consideration.
A slight twist on this is in California. The American Civil Liberties Union didn’t so much challenge the collection of the data as they did the transparency behind “why” the data was being collected. They simply want to be told how the data is being used.
Court cases like these could begin to put a crimp in this widespread collection of license plate numbers and a specific car’s location.
It’s a great technology, but this is a free society. We like to think our movements, where we go, what routes we take, what burger joints we visit are our own business. No matter how amazing the technology becomes, that still sounds like a good philosophy.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.
Monday, May 7, 2018
The Virginia Supreme Court held that license plate images taken by law enforcement agencies constitute “personal information,” reviving a challenge to the police storage of license plate data.
Automatic license plate readers (“ALPRs”) are used by police departments across the country to take thousands of photos of license plates per hour. Officers check these numbers against lists of stolen or wanted vehicles. Because ALPRs also record the date, time and location of the license plate image, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that this collection is an invasion of privacy that allows police to track a person’s movements.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling marks a significant development in a case challenging the mass collection of license plate images and location data by ALPRs. In 2015, the ACLU sued the Fairfax County Police Department (“FCPD”) on behalf of Harrison Neal, a motorist whose license plate had been captured twice and stored pursuant to a FCPD policy for one year. Neal alleged that FCPD’s collection and storage of ALPR data violates Virginia’s Data Act, a statute designed to prevent the unnecessary collection and storage of personal information by government agencies. However, the circuit court rejected Neal’s claim. The court ruled that a license plate number is not “personal information” under the Data Act because the number refers to a vehicle rather than an individual.
On appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Neal argued that the state legislature broadly defined personal information in the Data Act to include inferences about an individual’s “personal characteristics, activities, or associations.” Because a vehicle is registered to an owner, officers can infer that owner’s location and other information associated with the owner based on decals, bumper stickers, and “silhouettes” of occupants inadvertently captured by ALPR photos. In response, FCPD argued that the ALPR database is not governed by the Data Act because it only maintains information about the license plate number and does not contain personally identifying information about the owner or driver of the vehicle. Lastly, the FCPD argued for a broad exemption from the Data Act because the ALPR database is used to solve crime.
Although the Virginia Supreme Court agreed with the circuit court that the license plate number is not personal information, the court held that the license plate image and associated data are personal information under the Data Act. The Court reasoned that full photographs snapped by license plate readers “afford a basis for inferring personal characteristics” and the presence of an individual at a certain place and time. Additionally, the Court rejected FCPD’s crime-solving exemption and emphasized that FCPD’s “sweeping randomized surveillance and collection of personal information” was not connected to criminal investigations and intelligence gathering. Lastly, the Court remanded the case to the circuit court for further hearings on whether the ALPR record-keeping process stores personally identifying information about the owner or driver of the vehicle.
Virginia Supreme Court Takes Aim at Random License Plate Scans by Police
"The case will be remanded for a determination of whether the total components and operations of the ALPR record-keeping process provide a means through which a link between a license plate number and the vehicle's owner may be readily made," Justice Cleo Powell said.
By Michael Booth | May 04, 2018 at 02:15 PM
The Virginia Supreme Court may soon block law enforcement agencies from taking random photos of license plates using high-speed cameras and then storing that information in a database.
The court on April 26 ordered a trial judge to determine if those license plate photos, taken randomly by “automated license plate recognition” (ALPR) devices attached to the bumpers of patrol cars or to the bases of traffic signs, can be ultimately tied to specific individuals.
If that turns out to be the case, the practice may run afoul of the state’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, which restricts information law enforcement officials may gather on individuals who are not the subjects of criminal investigations, said Justice Cleo Powell, writing for the court in Neal v. Fairfax County Police Department.
“The case will be remanded for a determination of whether the total components and operations of the ALPR record-keeping process provide a means through which a link between a license plate number and the vehicle’s owner may be readily made,” Powell said.
The litigation began in May 2014 when a Virginia resident, Harrison Neal, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Fairfax County Police Department demanding to know whether one of its ALPR cameras recorded his license plate number.
Fairfax County is a largely wealthy, sprawling suburban community located just west of Washington, D.C. It is home to the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In response to Neal’s request, the Fairfax County Police Department sent Neal two photos of his license plate, taken with ALPR cameras, along with the times, dates and GPS locations where the pictures were taken, according to the court.
Neal then filed a complaint in Fairfax County Circuit Court, seeking to enjoin the Fairfax police from continuing to collect and store license plate information.
According to the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, state Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli had, in 2011, told law enforcement authorities that they could not record and store ALPR pictures without violating the Data Act unless they were involved in a specific and ongoing criminal investigation.
Neal’s lawsuit, however, alleged that police departments, particularly those in heavily populated Northern Virginia, ignored that directive and continued to collect and store that information.
Fairfax County responded that the ALPRs were engaged in both “active” and “passive” collection of license plate information, and added that license plate numbers did not amount to “personal information” about particular individuals, according to the decision.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert Smith dismissed Neal’s lawsuit on summary judgment, saying that a “license plate number is not personal information.”
On Neal’s appeal, the court ordered Smith to conduct further fact-finding hearings, and suggested that if a license plate number could be traced to a specific owner or driver, the collection of those pictures may violate the Data Act.
Nearly all states, according to the ACLU, employ some sort of ALPR technology.
The Virginia ACLU issued a statement in response to the ruling.
“Everyone should be able to move about freely in public without fear of the government collecting and retaining information about their comings and goings,” the ACLU said.
“[W]e are glad that the court recognized that an information system linking this information to the name of the vehicle owner would be subject to the [Data] Act.
“The indiscriminate collection and retention of sensitive location information like ALPR data poses grave risks to civil liberties. Long-term storage of such information can create a virtual ‘time machine’ of individual movements, ripe for abuse,” the ACLU said.
Neal was represented by Edward Rosenthal of Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger in Alexandria, Virginia. Fairfax County Senior Assistant County Attorney Kimberly Baucom and County Attorney Elizabeth Teare represented the police department. None returned calls seeking comment.
JUDGES SLAM BRAKES ON LICENSE-PLATE READING SYSTEM
Rule state's data-systems law protects consumers from constant surveillance
A network of cameras that captures your car license plate whenever you drive, recording times and locations, has been dealt a significant blow by the Virginia Supreme Court.
The justices have returned to a lower court a complaint against the automated license plate reader system used by the Fairfax County police department. The court wants to know whether or not police can track down an individual through a license plate.
If so, the system violates the law, the state’s Data Act, according to the court opinion.
The court said the “pictures and associated data stored in the police department’s ALPR database meet the statutory definition of ‘personal information.'”
“However, on the record before the court, we are unable to determine whether the police department’s retention and ‘passive use’ of information generated by ALPRs may be classified as an ‘information system’ governed by the Data Act. Accordingly the judgment of the circuit court granting summary judgement in favor of [the police] is reversed. The case will be remanded for a determination on whether the total components and operations of the ALPR record-keeping process provide means through which a link between a license plate number and the vehicle’s owner may be readily made.
“If such a means exists, then the police department’s ‘passive use’ of ALPRs is not exempt from the operation of the Data Act … because the police department collected and retained personal information without suspicion of criminal activity at any level.”
While this case pertains only to a Virginia law, the Rutherford Institute, which argued for privacy for Americans in the case, called it a “blow to the police’s use of Automated License Plate Readers.”
The complaint was filed by Harrison Neal, who discovered the police were taking photos of his license plate, his car and him without any suspicion of criminal activity and storing the information in a database.
He sued to stop the police from collecting or storing information “without suspicion of any criminal activity.”
The state privacy law states information cannot be collected “unless the need for it has been established in advance,” which would rule out random collections and the use of databases.
“We’re on the losing end of a technological revolution that has already taken hostage our computers, our phones, our finances, our entertainment, our shopping, our appliances, and now, it’s focused its sights on our cars,” said John W. Whitehead, the president of the Rutherford Institute.
“By subjecting Americans to surveillance without their knowledge or compliance and then storing the data for later use, the government has erected the ultimate suspect society. In such an environment, there is no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty,'” he said.
Whitehead explained that in reversing the lower court’s decision, the court found that license plate readers collect personal information prohibited by Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.
The cameras used by the system photograph up to 3,600 license tag numbers per minute, catching every passing car. They then store the tag number and the date, time and location of the photograph in a searchable database. The data is shared with law enforcement, fusion centers and private companies and used to track the movements of persons in their cars.
The lawsuit by Neal cited a 2013 opinion by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that ALPR data is “personal information” that the Data Act forbids the government from collecting and storing except in connection with an active criminal investigation.
The court ruling specifically said the judges agreed with the AG’s opinion that lawmakers did not give a blanket exemption to law enforcement systems but only those dealing with active investigations and intelligence gathering relating to crimes.
“We conclude that the police department’s sweeping randomized surveillance and collection of personal information does not ‘deal with investigations and intelligence gather related to criminal activity’ and, therefore if the ALPR database is determined to be an information system, it is not exempt from the operation of the Data Act.”
Fairfax Co. police should expand ‘less-lethal’ force options, audit says
By Neal Augenstein |
An independent police auditor's report says Fairfax County Police should have more non-lethal weapons available. The report comes in the wake of the 2017 police shooting of Mohammad Azim Doudzai at his Herndon townhouse,. (WTOP/Dick Uliano, file)
WASHINGTON — An independent police auditor examining the police shooting of a man killed in the doorway of his Herndon, Virginia, town house last year has called for more Fairfax County police officers to be equipped with “less-lethal” weapons.
Police Chief Ed Roessler, in an WTOP interview, says those tools were used, “but unfortunately they did not end the threat, and we had to use deadly force” resulting in the death of Mohammad Azim Doudzai.
Doudzai was killed by police Jan. 16, 2017 after wounding his two brothers, and setting fire to his house. Another housemate was trapped in the third-floor bathroom of the house, as the fire spread.
The report by the county’s independent police auditor, Richard Schott — a 27-year veteran of the FBI — concluded police acted legally and appropriately, given the quickly changing scenario.
“I believe the use of force was objectively reasonable, necessary, and most likely, lifesaving,” Schott wrote in the report.
Earlier, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh determined the shooting was justified.
But in detailing the police decision-making and actions outside the home in the 13000 block of Covered Wagon Lane, Schott suggested officers were hamstrung by not having enough less-lethal weapons on hand.
According to Schott’s report, moments after a SWAT supervisor called for “less lethal” force to be deployed against Doudzai, a supplemental SWAT officer “needed to borrow a single-launch .40mm impact projectile weapon” from a patrol officer.
The SWAT officer fired the hard foam projectile at Doudzai’s abdomen, but failed to fell Doudzai.
“When called upon to fire another .40mm impact projectile, (the supplemental SWAT officer) was unable because the impact projectile weapon that he had borrowed from the patrol officer was a single shot patrol version.”
According to the report, SWAT team members who are issued the devices are issued the multi-launcher version.
“To preserve the sanctity of life to the greatest extent possible in future cases, more less-lethal options should be available to as many officers as possible,” Schott wrote.
In the WTOP interview, Roessler suggested buying more weapons wouldn’t necessarily have changed the outcome, since first responders faced a dynamic situation.
“You had an active shooter, the house on fire and a man trapped on the third floor in a bathroom, who was being overcome by smoke inhalation,” said Roessler. “We were still trying to build the (crime) scene and have the SWAT officers take full control of the scene by relieving the patrol officers.”
Roessler said SWAT officers are currently the only unit which has received the periodic proficiency training to be assigned multi-launch projectiles.
In his recommendations, Schott specified more “less-lethal” weapons are needed in the department. The report specifically recommended the weapons be available to each shift and that all full-time SWAT officers be equipped with multi-launcher versions.
“That is something we’re increasing,” Roessler said. “Clearly it relates to a budgetary issue, but we have great support, and we are equipping our officers with the latest tools.”
In a statement, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said: “Our police officers are tasked with protecting public safety as well as the sanctity of life. I support equipping our officers with nonlethal weapons and look forward to discussing this item more during our upcoming budget season.”
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Man shot at by police after 2-hour Fairfax Co. barricade
By Rick MassimoMarch 15, 2018 5:30 pm
WASHINGTON — A man is being evaluated after he barricaded himself in his Fairfax County, Virginia, house for about two hours starting Wednesday night, and police are making an internal investigation after an officer shot at him.
Fairfax County police in the McLean Police District said in a statement that they came to the house on Hunter Road, south of Interstate 66, at about 11 p.m. Wednesday after getting a call that an armed, suicidal man had fired a shot from his gun.
Police arrived and negotiated with the man for about two hours before he left the house with the gun; an officer shot at him once, missing him, police said.
They also used an electronic weapon, beanbag rounds and a foam projectile on the man, inflicting minor injuries before taking him into custody, police said.
Police added that the Major Crimes Bureau is making a criminal investigation of the shooting, while the Internal Affairs Bureau is conducting an administrative investigation. Police Chief Edwin Roessler will have an update within 10 days “in accordance with prescribed policies,” the statement said.
The problem is a police chief who should have been fired years ago and a mind set within the police that holds the people of Fairfax County in complete contempt
A police chase in Northern Virginia ends with a brain-damaged child and a family forever changed
· By Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post
She never saw it coming.
There was no boom. No crash. No crunch of metal on metal like in the movies.
It was just Filsan Duale and five kids in the minivan - four of her own plus a friend they took go-karting - heading to their home in Northern Virginia on Dec. 27. Then total blackness, and Duale opened her eyes and there was blood and broken glass everywhere.
Her 2-year-old was bleeding. The boys were all slashed up. Her 5-year-old was dazed and cut up, too. But the minivan's third row was empty. Her 12-year-old daughter was gone. "What happened? Is everyone alive? Amran? Where is Amran?" Duale said she remembers thinking.
Amran, her precocious, lively sixth-grader, was crumpled on the road, limp and scraped raw. The impact of the pickup truck T-boning them during a frenetic Fairfax County, Virginia, police chase - one that is now under investigation for the way it was conducted and the damage it has done - launched Amran through a window, to the street, where she skidded down Frying Pan Road on her face.
Her skull was fractured, her facial bones broken. Duale, 38, who was also cut up and had a broken wrist, tried to lunge toward her daughter. But the paramedics had just arrived, and they swarmed the girl amid screams and the crunch of shattered glass.
That was more than two months ago.
Now her 12-year-old, who rode her bike to school and played soccer, grunts and sighs as she spends hours learning to put one foot in front of the other again at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
The four other kids are back in school in Herndon, Virginia. They hate being in the car, Duale said, and they will all have scars for the rest of their lives. But they will recover from the physical wounds.
Amran may never be the same.
She spent two weeks in a coma. Her sixth-grade teacher came in and sat by her bedside, and painted her nails. When she woke up on Jan. 10, she was devastated that her long hair had been shaved off, but didn't understand how her nails got so pretty.
She misses school - her friends and books and classes. Amran, who wants to be a teacher, was popular and chatty and jumped rope at recess with the other girls. She loved art class, but her best subject was math.
Her new curriculum, in these long, exhausting days, covers standing, walking and concentrating. It takes everything she has to take a small beanbag from a therapist's hand while balancing on one leg. Two people have to hold her steady when she does this.
After an obstacle course of buckets, beanbags and rings that looks as though it's set up for a toddler, the tween crumples in exhaustion. "That was hard," she tells her physical therapist.
"When can I ride a bike again? I want to ride a bike!" she says, before tipping over on a mattress.
Amran's skull was fractured, but it was her brain being slammed around that did the real damage, said her doctor, Michelle Melicosta.
Amran was in terrible shape after the accident, a 3 on the Glasgow-Coma scale of 3 to 15, which means she was as low as it is possible to be without being dead.
Now Melicosta said she is "thrilled with Amran's progress."
Amran can't see out of her right eye, and she still uses a feeding tube to eat and a tracheostomy tube to breathe, but she is making progress toward getting rid of both.
Her family has been devastated, too, every shred of normalcy taken from them. During the week, Duale lives at the hospital with Amran while her husband, Moustapha Djama, who runs Loudoun County's public transportation system, manages the three other kids. On the weekends, they switch.
"It was just all for a truck. A police officer was chasing a truck that was stolen from over at the storage place," Duale told me, in a whisper, outside Kennedy Krieger's physical therapy room. "Everything in our lives is different now because of a truck."
According to Fairfax County police, the man driving the truck, Brandon Stefon Vinson, 28, rang the doorbell of a random house in Centreville, Virginia, on Dec. 27 and allegedly punched the girl who opened it.
Then he jumped into a car that had been reported stolen earlier that day in Hyattsville, Maryland, and took off, police said.
Vinson allegedly slammed into a pickup truck, assaulted that driver and took off in the truck. That's when police spotted him and began the chase.
"They went through four red lights. Four," Duale said, holding up four fingers to emphasize how long and dangerous the chase was.
"And then he hit us. I never saw him coming," she said. "The light just turned green, and I was slowly starting to roll and then, then it just went black."
Fairfax police said they are still investigating whether the chase was justified.
A couple of weeks after the crash, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors began reviewing guidelines designed to clarify when and whether police should be in a high-speed chase.
"Officers, controlling pursuit supervisors, and commanders must always balance the need for immediate apprehension with the dangers created by the pursuit, especially relating to the sanctity of preservation of all human life," reads the 45-page draft the board reviewed in January.
If they don't think the suspect is going to kill someone or himself, police should end the pursuit and get a warrant, according to the draft policy.
The county reported 134 police pursuits in 2016, up from 119 in 2015, and 115 in 2014, according to a WTOP report.
When I looked for national statistics, I found an analysis released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It found that an average of 355 people were killed annually between 1996 and 2015 in crashes related to police pursuits.
Meanwhile, Amran's family is struggling with medical costs that their insurance doesn't cover. Those have soared to more than $100,000, which is why they've started a GoFundMe site. The coverage for Amran's therapy at Kennedy Krieger will run out in a couple of weeks. Then Duale will bring her home, where she'll be in charge of her daughter's progress.
Someday, Duale hopes to be able to drive again. Her husband has been driving. But every time she gets back into a car - even when she is a passenger - she flinches, shudders and remembers the blackness, then all that blood.
Police body cameras pitched as accountability tools, but Chesterfield encounter shows departments can easily keep footage secret
· By Ned Oliver Richmond Times-Dispatch
Yesha Callahan’s son called distraught early on a Sunday morning: A Chesterfield County police officer had just drawn a gun on him during a minor traffic stop.
Accounts differ, but through the course of the encounter, the police said the car smelled like marijuana and initiated a search. At some point, police said the Virginia State University freshman reached for his waistband and an officer pulled his gun.
Ultimately no shots were fired, no illegal drugs were found, no traffic tickets were written, and everyone went their separate ways. But Callahan said her son was badly shaken and she, as his mom, wanted to understand what happened. So she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the footage from the body cameras the two officers who made the stop were wearing.
“I just assumed because there were no criminal charges, no citations, no tickets or anything, that the footage should be readily available,” she said.
It was not. The day after the Feb. 4 incident, the department declined to provide the video, citing an exemption in the state’s public records laws that allows police to keep materials from criminal investigations secret — even in cases that do not result in charges.
Callahan’s experience in Chesterfield isn’t unique in Virginia, where law enforcement agencies have broad leeway to deny requests. And advocates, news agencies and, in this case, concerned parents have found they often do.
“When they roll out these programs and they ask the public to support them, the justification is always transparency and public trust in law enforcement,” said Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which has studied body camera policies of Virginia police departments. “So why would they not release footage?
“But what we have found is that they don’t.”
Across the country, law enforcement agencies have adopted different approaches to the issue, and they’re evolving quickly as more departments adopt the technology, which one study showed reduced complaints against officers by 93 percent.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department allows the public to review footage at the department as long as it’s not still part of an investigation.
Other departments have policies that specifically address use of force incidents. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set a policy of releasing video from police shootings within 90 days of the incident.
This month, the Los Angeles Police Department introduced a new policy in which video of “critical incidents” like shootings by officers would automatically become public within 45 days, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reports that police officials had previously resisted making footage public, fearing it would hinder investigations or provide an incomplete snapshot of the event in question.
The agency overcame those concerns by allowing the police chief to withhold videos with the support of at least two of the five members of the city’s police commission.
In Virginia, state law treats body camera footage the same as every other kind of public record, said Alan Gernhardt, the executive director and senior attorney of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
Richmond city and Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties all have policies governing how and when body cameras are used, but none directly addresses how requests for the resulting footage will be handled, a Richmond Times-Dispatch review found.
Elsewhere in the state, a handful of Virginia departments do skew toward making video available, said Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She pointed to policies in Fairfax County that in January led the police chief to release footage of two U.S. Park Police officers shooting Bijan Ghaisar, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, at close range. The decision was regarded as unusual, particularly because the FBI, not Fairfax County authorities, was investigating the shooting.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many requests departments receive for body camera footage and how many ultimately result in video being made public. Most departments maintain logs of FOIA requests but, in Richmond, for instance, the logs do not include information about the department’s response. And even if they did, it’s common for people to request footage that does not exist on the off chance that it might yield a recording.
Chesterfield police cited similar limitations in providing specific numbers detailing its responses, but spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said the department has released 55 body-worn camera videos since the county began equipping officers with the technology — most related to traffic crashes.
She estimated that the department has gotten “few requests for body-worn camera footage from incidents considered criminal.” In at least one case, she said footage was provided but that “to the best of our recollection we have denied two of these requests.”
Farrar, with the state branch of the ACLU, said his organization’s requests for footage have followed police-involved shootings and have all been refused, with departments most frequently citing FOIA exemptions that allow but do not require law enforcement agencies to withhold criminal investigative materials and personnel records.
In the case of Callahan and her son, Chesterfield police ultimately cited both exemptions.
Although the department’s records administrator initially said the department would not release the footage because it was part of a criminal investigation, Caroon, the department spokeswoman, later said in a statement that “internal investigations, including those initiated by community complaints, are exempt from FOIA and it is the department’s practice not to release information related to those investigations, as they are personnel matters.”
Asked about the varied explanations, the department said the administrator who responded denied the request because she considered it a criminal situation. After that, Callahan filed a complaint with the department, making the video part of an internal investigation in the department’s eyes.
Caroon said the encounter is prompting the department to adjust its approach to responding to similar requests in the future.
“We are adding an additional review level for these requests to ensure we are releasing those items we can release,” she said. “We are currently working with Ms. Callahan to set up a time for her to come in and view the video.”
As for the stop itself, Caroon said officers pulled the vehicle over for not making a complete stop before turning right at a red light in Ettrick, a few blocks from VSU’s campus. She said police asked if he had anything illegal on him and he reached for his waistband, ignoring two commands to stop, at which point one of the officers drew his weapon.
Callahan said her son, who declined to be interviewed for this story because he did not want to draw further scrutiny around campus, never ignored any commands and thought he was following the officers’ instructions. She also challenged that the car rolled through the stoplight and that the car smelled like marijuana in the first place, saying she believes her son and his friend, who are black, were profiled by the two officers, who are white.
A journalist who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and wrote about her and her son’s experience on The Root, where she serves as deputy managing editor, Callahan said she’s unlikely to take the department up on its offer to drive to Chesterfield to view the footage she hoped would help explain the situation.
“I’m like two-and-a-half hours away,” she said. “If you’re going to let me see the video in your office, why can’t you just send me the video wherever I’m located?”