Virginia Bill Would Keep All Police Names out of the Public Eye

Virginia Bill Would Keep All Police Names out of the Public Eye
(Photo: J.Castro/Getty Images)

The legislation goes further than any other bills that aim to restrict public access to police information.

While some states wrestle with whether or not to release the names of police officers involved in shooting incidents, one state is pondering whether or not to make the names of all officers private—all the time.

“It used to be that there was a healthy respect for law enforcement,” state Sen. John Cosgrove of Virginia told The Associated Press. “Now they’ve become targets of opportunity.”

Cosgrove is the sponsor of a bill that would keep all names of local and state police and sheriffs in Virginia out of the public’s reach. The bill passed the state Senate on Monday, and is headed to the House. Cosgrove’s bill would make law enforcement exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests in an effort to protect them from the harassment and violence he says they face.

The bill was written in response to a court order in November that allowed The Virginian-Pilot to access employment records of 125,000 current law enforcement officers and personnel in the state. Reporters were investigating whether or not police officers with complaints filed against them have been shuffled to different departments rather than removed from the field. The paper sued the Department of Criminal Justice Services after a FOIA request was denied.

Stories of officers being rehired in neighboring departments—or even the same department—after exhibiting problematic behavior on the job are commonplace throughout the country, though tracking employment records can pose a challenge. Law enforcement unions and arbitration processes also safeguard officers from being fired, and some union contracts have provisions that allow the destruction of officers’ disciplinary records or make those records exempt from FOIA requests.

An AP investigation in November found that even in states that revoke law enforcement licenses after misconduct, the process often takes so long that officers are able to work at other departments in the meantime. Even when law enforcement officials do examine the disciplinary records of potential employees, identifying past incidents of serious misconduct doesn’t guarantee the officer won’t land the job.

A separate investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2013 revealed that 280 officers with records of accidentally firing their weapons, soliciting prostitutes, and having sex on the job were hired by the department. But these revelatory investigations rely on the transparency that comes from public records requests and the data those requests are able to uncover.

While other states have various laws protecting the privacy of police, the Virginia bill is the broadest in scope. Releasing to the public the names of officers involved in shootings has become particularly contentious in the past few years following numerous high-profile incidents in which police have shot and killed unarmed citizens.

In Philadelphia last year, the Department of Justice recommended increasing transparency by releasing the names of officers involved in shootings within 72 hours of the incident after investigating the department’s use of force. But they were met with fierce resistance from the state’s police union, which filed a complaint with the state’s Labor Relations Board, arguing that the policy “infringes upon officers’ privacy rights.”

Meanwhile, police chiefs in Arizona pleaded with Gov. Doug Ducey last March to veto a bill that would have required law enforcement to keep secret the names of officers involved in shootings.

“We need to build and repair the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor told the AP. “Enacting legislation that would hamper that trust by not allowing officers’ names to be released is not in my opinion the best way to improve or repair that level of trust.”

The Arizona bill, which passed both houses with bipartisan support, was ultimately vetoed.

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