By Radley Balko
Several years ago, local journalists noticed that three of the largest police agencies in Virginia — the Fairfax County Police Department, the Alexandria Police Department and the Arlington County Police Department — were summarily denying all open-records requests. Virginia actually has pretty decent open-records laws, but these agencies were simply choosing to ignore them. This came to light after a number of police shootings in which the agencies involved had refused to name the officers responsible. Journalist Michael Pope found that the agencies were even declining to release information about cases they were simultaneously touting in press releases.
This was essentially an open defiance of state law. Yet the Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney not only defended the lack of transparency, he blamed the media for wanting such information in the first place, and derisively referred to “the sacred ‘right of the public to know.’ ”
The Virginia Senate responded with some watered-down modifications to the state’s open-record laws. Even those modifications were vigorously opposed by law enforcement agencies across the state.
Fast-forward to this week. The Virginia Senate just passed a horrendous bill.
The Virginia Senate voted 25-15 on Monday to keep the names of all police officers and deputy sheriffs a secret.
SB552 by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, applies to any local or state officer, including officers from agencies such as the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the Virginia Marine Police.
Cosgrove said during an earlier subcommittee hearing that he filed the bill in response to a November court ruling allowing The Virginian-Pilot access to names, agencies and employment dates for current Virginia police officers. The newspaper is examining how often officers who got in trouble were able to find other jobs in law enforcement.
Cosgrove said Monday that his bill, which exempts law enforcement officers from Freedom of Information Act requirements, should be passed to protect officers and their families from being targeted for violence.
“Unfortunately, our culture has changed,” he said. “Many times, police officers are considered fair game.”
Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that this bill was introduced in direct response to a newspaper investigation into why police officers who are fired for misconduct are permitted to simply go work for another agency. Does Sen. Cosgrove believe that cops who are fired for corruption, misuse of force, or illegal acts should be able to find work at another police agency? Why doesn’t he want the public to know when and how often this happens?
Another Virginia state senator actually cited “ISIS terrorism” as a reason to keep the identities of police officers secret. For the record, Cosgrove claims membership in his local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and has been named Legislator of the Year by the FOP and the Virginia State Police Association. He has received campaign contributions from the latter and the Virginia Sheriffs Association.
The notion that “our culture has changed” is also wrong. As we’ve documented over and over again here at The Watch, policing has been getting safer for decades. (Yes, the start of 2016 has seen an inordinate number of killings of police officers. There’s no evidence this is indicative of a trend or is the beginning of a reversal of the generation-long trend toward fewer such killings.) I’m not aware of a single incident in which the publication of a police officer’s name after an officer-involved shooting has led to violence against that police officer or his or her family. In a few very high-profile cases, there have been threats. But to require police agencies to keep all officers’ names secret would essentially remove the ability of the media and watchdog groups to find patterns of officer misconduct. It would mean the public would be completely reliant on law enforcement agencies to police themselves. That’s a massive overreaction to a perceived threat for which there’s little to zero evidence.
It’s worth stating one more time exactly what’s happening here: Virginia’ state Senate thinks the public should be forbidden from knowing the names of the public servants entrusted with the power to detain, arrest and kill.
Let’s hope the Virginia House of Delegates ends this madness and kills the bill.
Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."