Virginia deserves accountability from police

Published 10:55 am Friday, February 26, 2016

by R.E. Spears III

Could Virginia be the first state in the nation with its own secret police?

On its face, the suggestion seems preposterous, but a bill that has passed the Virginia Senate — sponsored by Sen. John Cosgrove, who represents a portion of Suffolk — would make the preposterous a reality.

Cosgrove’s SB-552 would amend Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to make police officers’ names and addresses personnel records, thereby exempting them from mandatory disclosure under FOIA. Effectively, the bill would allow the identities of all law enforcement officers and fire marshals throughout the commonwealth to be kept secret.

Cosgrove has said he pursued the legislation in concert with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police in an effort to ensure the safety of police officers and their families in this era of fraught interactions between the police and the public.

In a Feb. 2 subcommittee hearing, according to The Virginian-Pilot, Cosgrove explained that he became concerned about officer safety when he learned of an investigation by that newspaper into the ability of officers in trouble with one police department to take positions in other departments. A court had ruled that a newspaper request for identity information necessary for that investigation was valid under Virginia law.

Later, according to Virginian-Pilot coverage of the issue in the General Assembly, Cosgrove took a broader approach to justifying his proposed legislation, suggesting that officers could be endangered by any public disclosure of their identities. But nobody, including Cosgrove, has been able to point to a single situation in which a law enforcement officer was endangered by public knowledge of his name.

It’s standard procedure in many police departments — including Suffolk’s — to publicize the ceremonies when new officers receive their badges, and both police and city officials rush to publicly congratulate (by name) officers who save lives in unusual circumstances or do other good deeds that would make for good public relations if publicly known. In fact, this newspaper has been a sponsor and supporter of the Hampton Roads Top Cop program, which publicly honors and awards officers for such actions.

Cosgrove and the organizations he worked with to develop this ill-conceived legislation are trying to have things both ways. They would expect and appreciate good publicity when the vast majority of law enforcement officers are doing things like saving puppies from burning buildings, but they would then shield the small minority when they abuse their positions of authority or find themselves under investigation for alleged misdeeds.

Make no mistake: Despite Cosgrove’s assurances that his bill only allows withholding officers’ names, recent trends and experience with Virginia’s FOIA show that government agencies are far more likely to try to use the act to shield information than to share it.

In fact, the FOIA’s suggestions that information may be withheld are frequently interpreted as mandates by government agencies, especially when it comes to personnel matters. It’s not a big step to imagine those same agencies would take a similar approach in the case of this new proposed exemption.

Considering the power we confer to police officers in pursuance of their duties to keep the community safe, it is important that society also requires from them a level of accountability that would be lost if they were allowed to do their work anonymously and with impunity, in effect operating as Virginia’s version of the notorious secret police of Cold War-era Eastern Europe.

Suspects have a right to face their accusers, even if those accusers are police officers. Victims of police abuse — however common or rare they might be — deserve to be able to pursue redress against their abusers. And society at large should be able to operate with confidence that good police officers are being rewarded with promotions and raises, while bad ones are weeded out of the system, rather than passed along to other, unsuspecting communities.

Folks in Cosgrove’s 14th Senatorial District, including the Suffolk communities he represents, should be alarmed that their senator could be so naïve about the public trust that might be sacrificed in exchange for providing a security for which there has been no demonstrated need. More generally, it’s shocking that 24 other senators joined him in passing this bill by a 25-15 vote on Monday.

The police name-secrecy bill is now in the hands of the House of Delegates. If you appreciate the ability to hold officers accountable for their actions — if you can imagine the potential for abuse if Virginia creates a literal secret police force — contact your state delegate and plead with him or her to undo the damage done by Cosgrove and the rest of the Virginia Senate with this alarming legislation.

Virginia must not be allowed to create a secret police force.

RES SPEARS is a former reporter and editor of The Tidewater News, and is the managing editor of The Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is