Panel says no to police secrecy
Published 6:22 pm Saturday, February 27, 2016
By Margaret Carmel
Capital News Service
After nearly an hour of debate, a legislative panel killed a bill that would have exempted law enforcement officers’ names and training records from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
A subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee tabled Senate Bill 552 for the General Assembly’s current session. State officials plan to study the issue as part of a review of the state’s FOIA law.
FOIA allows any citizen to gain access to government documents, including names and salaries of public employees. Currently, personal information such as health records, home addresses, Social Security numbers and bank account information is exempt.
SB 552, proposed by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, would have exempted the names and other information about police officers as well. Cosgrove said his measure sought to protect law enforcement officers.
“Once this information is received by a media outlet, a lawyer or anybody, there’s no controlling that information anymore,” Cosgrove told the subcommittee. “Anybody can FOIA information. It can even be the council of MS-13,” or Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious criminal gang.
Speaking on the behalf of the Virginia Press Association, attorney Craig T. Merritt stressed the importance of transparency and emphasized the safeguards in existing law to protect police officers.
“The express purpose of this bill is to take away names produced in bulk – to take away the ability for the public to associate with individual officers the information that you can get for everybody else,” Merritt said. “If you take all of the names out of the database, you can’t tell what a particular officer’s position is or what they’re being paid.”
Current Virginia law already exempts the identities of undercover officers, mobile phone numbers and tactical plans from FOIA.
Several high-ranking law enforcement administrators and officers came to speak in support of the bill. Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police of Virginia, expressed concerns about someone using FOIA to get a database of officers’ names digitally in bulk and then posting it on the Internet.
“I agree the public has a right to know who their police officers are,” Carroll said. “My concern goes beyond Chesterfield County. This is the World Wide Web when this stuff gets posted.”
Carroll described several unsolved shooting deaths of off-duty police officers – all assumed to be in retaliation for arresting or testifying against gang members. But Merritt said FOIA wasn’t involved in such incidents.
“One thing we know for sure is, it could not have been because of a FOIA request, because had there been a FOIA request, there would have been a record,” Merritt said. “The idea that people would use FOIA to accomplish that outcome and identify themselves doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
M. Wayne Huggins of the Virginia State Police Association cited the need to protect law enforcement officers from new threats, both international and domestic.
“I never thought I would see the day when a terrorist attack in Paris, France, would cause police officers in Virginia to be threatened,” Huggins said. “I also never thought I would see the day when American citizens marched in the street chanting for dead cops.”