NoVa’s Secret Police

Good work, Senator John Edwards.

Surprised to hear me laud a Democrat Senator?  Well, it’s not that John Edwards.  We’re talking about Virginia State Senator John Edwards from Roanoke, who has introduced legislation three years running to open up police records to public scrutiny.

You may be surprised that Virginia has one of the worst records in the country on this front, meriting an F from the State Integrity Project.  That failing grade is troubling, as it indicates the Commonwealth is more likely to suffer from corrupt practices that endanger its citizens and the trust inherent in a healthy relationship between the people and those who police them.

We know for certain that those with public power must be kept in check lest they become tyrants grand or petty.  Our nation’s many sunlight laws demanding open meetings and open records are hallmarks of a just government, where the people are truly the masters.  Where the people are subjects, open government is as alien as the right to criticize those in power.  Virginia is not headed in the right direction here.

The first paragraph of Virginia Freedom of Information Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1968, states that all public records “shall be presumed open.” But the legislation includes an exception that allows police to withhold “complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files or reports, witness statements and evidence.”

Police officials in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria have adopted what they call a “blanket” approach to using their exemption. That means they have decided to withhold any document they can without any analysis of whether they should. Police chiefs and prosecutors from across the commonwealth have spoken out against any effort to undermine their broad power of exemption.

Who would have thought the Commonwealth’s most liberal region would serve as the chief protectorate for police secrecy?  Go figure.

While it is hardly likely that we’ll be looking like Pyongyang on the Potomac any time soon, we do have a serious problem when an unarmed man is gunned down by police, and the citizenry is denied access to the police video of the incident.  We have a problem when another man is murdered and his family is denied access to the incident reports.  While we cannot presume that the police acted inappropriately in either case, we should also refuse to believe that they are above scrutiny, especially when deadly force is involved.  If anything, when police use deadly force or investigate murders, they should be subject to the most exacting examination.

Public scrutiny can be frustrating for police officers and prosecutors.  Being held accountable to the people is frustrating and time-consuming, but it is also what is required in a free society in which government is accountable to the people.

So here’s hoping Senators Colgan, Stosch, Martin, Stuart, Black, Reeves and Garrett will change their votes next session when Senator Edwards re-introduces this legislation.  They all voted against it in committee this year.

Some might say this is second-guessing police who are authorized to carry guns and kill on behalf of society.  But if killing in our name is not worthy of scrutiny, then what is?