A bill before the Virginia state legislature has become the focus of attention for civil rights advocates. Introduced by State Sen. John R. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), the bill would allow police departments to without the names of their officers. Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to protect officers in a national climate that has become increasingly hostile to police officers.
The ACLU of Virginia is pushing back. ACLU Exec. Dir. Claire Gastañaga said the bill is a step too far in government secrecy. “We are dangerously close to a police state in some respects.” She claimed that attacks on police rarely come about through the use of public records.
The bill if passed would classify the names of police officers as “personnel records” and thus not subject to release under Virginia’s freedom of information law. The Virginia House of Delegates, which is majority Republican, started debate on the bill today. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has not taken a position on the bill. The Virginia Senate has already approved Senate Bill 552, which would classify the names of all police officers and fire marshals as “personnel records.”
If the bill is signed into law, the restriction contemplated by the bill would be unprecedented nationally. States other than Virginia have put restrictions into place, but none go this far.
Cosgrove said of the motivations for the bill that there is no longer any respect for law officers. “Police officers are much more in jeopardy,” he said “There’s no nefarious intent behind the bill.”
In Oregon, the state House passed a bill last week allowing the name of an officer involved in a police shooting to be withheld for 90 days if a judge finds there is a credible threat to the officer. This followed the killing of a protester from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, held by armed occupiers for more than a month this year. And the Pennsylvania House passed a bill in November mandating the withholding the name of an officer involved in a shooting while the investigation is pending — which would be a change from the Philadelphia Police Department’s policy of releasing the name within three days.
Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police union, said that the bill is not about withholding information from the public, but is intended to keep law enforcement officers safe. He said that trends show that law officers have been targeted for killing “because of issues being driven in the media.” With a name, anyone can find out where an officer lives and put them at risk.
Freedom of information advocates are saying that withholding officers’ names is a totally new step. Legislation is usually related to a specific event rather than being used as a preventative measure. Other than Virginia, police departments are becoming much more forthcoming with information in the wake of shootings involving the police. Some are concerned that should the bill pass, police officers will be able to deny giving their names to citizens when detaining drivers or stopping them on the street.
In Virginia, police would have discretion to release any officer’s name is they so desire, while they claim that names would not be withheld without reason. The Fairfax County Police Department, which has a jurisdiction in the suburbs of Washington DC, is saying that officers will never remove their names from their uniforms as required by police procedures. Just the same, Fairfax police delayed 16 months before releasing the name of an officer accused of shooting an unarmed man in 2013. The name of the officer was not released until a judge ordered it.
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