by Kent Willis, Executive Director
Elected officials think they know everything. Government agencies know they know everything. And we, the people, deserve to know nothing.
That’s the way it goes in Virginia, and the latest example of this behavior is particularly galling.
Last week, a subcommittee of the Virginia Freedom of Information Council met to discuss a straight forward bill to allow the public access to information about police investigations once they have been closed. The result, per Virginia’s closed door traditions, was a bit of the same old, same old.
The ability of Virginia’s citizens to access police information ranks very low when compared with other states. Practically every state, either by law or tradition, allows access to police investigative records once they’ve been finalized. Not so in Virginia.
As a result, the police in Virginia--who just happen to be the government agency with the most power to deny us our liberties--are also one of the least transparent.
No one is arguing that the public should be able to identify undercover police or know the details of an ongoing investigation. But the right of the public, including the press, to review the work of the police is essential to police accountability. If records of police investigations are not available even after they are closed, then we have no idea what happened during those investigations.
The police claim that their internal evaluation process is good enough, and they assure us that they can monitor their own to keep everything on the up and up. But that’s the fox guarding the henhouse, and it smells like hogwash to me.
Virginia’s bad grades on police transparency are made worse by the fact that not one single locality in Virginia has a citizens’ group empowered by the local government to review and evaluate police actions. These civilian review boards, as they are typically called, can be found in most states.
With a weak FOIA that enables police to withhold information from the public and no formal civilian review process, the police can conduct most of their operations in virtual secrecy in Virginia.
Last November, an unarmed motorist in Fairfax County was shot and killed by the police. Since then the Fairfax County Police have said almost nothing about the incident, except that the police officer, whom they will not identify, was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing.
I want to know what happened that day and so do the residents of Fairfax County, especially those who drive cars. If the police officer acted appropriately given the circumstances, show us the evidence. If he didn’t, I have right to know who that officer is and whether or not appropriate corrective actions have been taken.
Ironically, the police do themselves a great disservice by covering up this kind of information. Most of the time the police do a good job, but if they hide their mistakes they engender distrust that only grows as the information remains undisclosed.
So back to that subcommittee meeting on making the police more accountable. Well, they seemed to feel that it was a good idea in principle, but then they got bogged down in the details about what information should be redacted from the closed files they were considering opening. Then a representative of the police complained that opening the files would undermine their operations. Then subcommittee members began talking about a compromise that would allow police investigations to be available to the public but only after someone filed a petition in court showing that he or she has a legitimate interest in obtaining information.
A petition in court? For the closed records of a public agency?
We the people pay for the police. And we the people cast the votes that put public officials in office. They work for us, not the other way around. Yet our elected officials (who often believe that being elected to office automatically bestows upon them a degree of wisdom the rest of us lack) and the police (who know they know what is good for the rest of us) seem to think that we don’t deserve to know what law enforcement is doing with our tax dollars.
If I am accused of a crime, the best protection I have against an injustice is not the lawyer I’ve hired or the jury of my peers who will judge me. They’re essential, of course, but it is the fact that my prosecution will take place in public, where everyone can watch it transpire, that affords me the most lasting guarantee of fairness.
I want the police to fight crime, and I want them to do it effectively and professionally. The only way to know if that is happening is for me be able to review their actions.
Even though the subcommittee of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is not likely to rock the boat, there will almost certainly be a bill in the Virginia General Assembly in 2011 that does.
Senator John Edwards sponsored SB 711, the 2010 bill that was referred to the FOIA subcommittee (see http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?111+sum+SB711 for details). Every one of us should support this bill or the 2011 version of it, so long as it doesn’t get too compromised by the legislative process.
In Fairfax County, a retired police detective has decided he’s had enough. He’s recruited his friends and neighbors to help, and the ACLU and the NAACP are assisting his efforts to establish a civilian review board. If you’re interested, his website is www.virginiaccpa.com/.
Every change takes time in Virginia, but there won’t be much change at all unless we who want it keep asking for it.
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