Amid growing national concerns about police misconduct, the Virginia Senate passed a bill which “provides that the names and training records of law-enforcement officers… shall be considered personnel records and excluded from mandatory disclosure under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” or FOIA. In particular, the bill would exempt police departments from open records requests about officer names, positions and other “personal identifying information.” This bill, passed Monday, will now move to the House of Delegates for further consideration. In order to prevent police corruption and keep law enforcement transparent, the House should not pass the bill.
The primary concern with the proposal is that it may increase corruption within Virginia police departments. If a police officer were to be fired from an agency for something severe, then the public should know if the officer is able to land a position at another agency. If the names and records of police officers are not disclosed, then Virginians have no way to know if this occurs. FOIA allows citizens to keep public officials accountable for their actions; police officers should not be exempt from this.
The main argument advanced by supporters of the bill, including Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) is that allowing the public access to the names and records of law enforcement officers will create a safety issue for the officers. As evidence, Cosgrove cited a recent incident in which a Texas newspaper expressed an intention to publish the names and addresses of officers after a fatal shooting by a community police officer. However, Cosgrove and others in favor of the bill have not identified particular instances in which someone used police records to find an officer and attack him. To the extent that this may be a concern, the case has not successfully been made that FOIA is the root of the problem.
Exemption to FOIA mandatory disclosure requirements would apply not only to state and local police departments but also to agencies such as the Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC. Here at the University, we have already seen controversial actions by ABC agents in last year's bloody arrest of then third-year student Martese Johnson. These actions highlight the need for public access to information regarding law enforcement.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, gave Virginia an “F” for public access to information in its most recent annual state integrity investigation. Passing a bill which would exempt law enforcement officers from mandatory disclosure under FOIA requirements would only increase the distance between Virginians and our state government.