It started with a reporter’s attempt to learn whether problem police officers were moving from department to department.
It resulted in legislation that is again bringing national scrutiny to the Virginia General Assembly: a bill that could keep all Virginia police officers’ names secret.
In a climate where the actions of police nationwide are under scrutiny as never before, supporters say it’s needed to keep officers safe from those who may harass or harm them. But the effort has drawn the attention of civil rights groups and others who say police should be moving toward more transparency – not less – to ensure that troubled officers are found and removed.
If it ultimately is made law, experts say the restriction would be unprecedented nationwide.
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The Virginia Senate has already approved Senate Bill 552, which would classify the names of all police officers and fire marshals as “personnel records,” and exempt them from mandatory disclosure under the state’s freedom of information law.
The Republican-dominated Virginia House will consider the bill in hearings starting Thursday.
Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has not taken a position on the bill yet, his spokesman said.
State Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said he knew many police officers and their families, and “the culture is not one of respect for law enforcement anymore. It’s really, ‘How, how can we get these guys? What can we do?’. . .Police officers are much more in jeopardy. There’s no nefarious intent behind the bill.”
Pushback has been strong.
“To say every officer’s name ought to be confidential,” said Virginia ACLU executive director Claire Gastaaga, “is just a step too far in government secrecy. We are dangerously close to a police state in some respects.”
She said shootings and attacks on police are rarely committed by anyone using public records.
While other states have made moves toward shielding the identities of some officers, none would go as far as the proposal in Virginia.
In Oregon, the state House passed a bill last week allowing the withholding of an officer’s name in a police shooting for 90 days if a judge finds there is a credible threat to the officer.
And the Pennsylvania House passed a bill in November mandating the withholding of an officer’s name involved in a shooting while the investigation is pending, after Philadelphia police said they would release the names within three days.
Virginia Fraternal Order of Police union President Kevin Carroll said he knew of one instance where a resident had taken an officer’s name and committed financial fraud, and the potential existed in other cases for danger to an officer’s family.
“This is not about trying to keep information from the public, to have secret police,” Carroll said.” But it is about wanting to keep our officers safe.”
Carroll said “with the current trend across the country, law enforcement officers have been attacked and even assassinated because of issues being driven in the media. ... With technology now, if you have a name, you could find out where they live. It puts them at risk.”
The ability to completely withhold officers’ names from the public is a new step nationally, according to Dan Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Council.
“Usually legislation is related to a specific incident, but not as a preventive measure,” Bevarly said. “To do such a blanket exemption, for a high-profile government employee, what are you trying to accomplish?”
John Worrall, a criminology professor at the University of Texas-Dallas specializing in policing in legal issues, said in his review of state Freedom of Information Act laws, “None that I’ve found have gone to this extreme.
In fact, the opposite is occurring” in many states, Worrall said, with more governments and police agencies posting information promptly about police-involved shootings.
Though police supporters fear use of publicly available records against them, “that’s largely based on a total lack of data,” Worrall said.
“There’s no data on retaliatory actions against police officers. And even if the problem exists, I’m not convinced that hiding their names is the solution.”
Worrall and others noted that keeping officers’ names secret seems to conflict with the idea of community policing and building trust with citizens. “I don’t know how you have community policing,” Gastanaga said, “when nobody knows your name.”