Police

Police Blackout

Law enforcement agencies in Northern Virginia say you have no right to know what they're doing.

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Last November a police officer shot and killed David Masters, an unarmed motorist, as he sat in the driver's seat of his car on the side of Richmond Highway, a major thoroughfare in Fairfax County, Virginia. Masters was wanted for allegedly stealing flowers from a planter. He had been given a ticket the day before for running a red light and then evading the police, though in a slow and not particularly dangerous manner. 

In January of this year, Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh announced through a press release that he would not be filing any charges against the officer who shot Masters. The shooting, Morrogh found, was justified due to a "furtive gesture" that suggested Masters had a weapon. The only eyewitness to this gesture was the police officer who pulled the trigger. 

There exists dash-camera video of Masters' shooting. There are also police interviews of other witnesses, and there is the police report itself. But the public and the press are unlikely to see those, or even to learn the officer's name. That's because the Fairfax County Police Department—along with the neighboring municipal police departments of Arlington and Alexandria—is among the most secretive, least transparent law enforcement agencies in the country.

Michael Pope, a reporter who covers Northern Virginia for the Connection Newspapers chain and for WAMU-FM, filed a series of open records requests related to the Masters shooting with the Fairfax County Police Department. All were denied. In March, Pope asked Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings why her department won't at least release the incident report on Masters' death, given the concerns that some have raised about the shooting. "Let us hear that concern," Jennings shot back. "We are not hearing it from anybody except the media, except individual reporters." 

Except the media? That's exactly who you would expect to file most open records requests. Asked why her department won't even release the name of the officer who shot Masters, Jennings got more obtuse. "What does the name of an officer give the public in terms of information and disclosure?" Jennings asked. "I'd be curious to know why they want the name of an officer." 

Well, for starters, because he's a government employee, paid by taxpayers and entrusted with the power to arrest, detain, coerce, and kill. And he recently used the most serious of those powers on an unarmed man. Releasing the name would allow reporters to see if the officer has been involved in other shootings or if there have been prior disciplinary measures or citizen complaints against him. It would allow the media to assess whether the Fairfax County Police Department has done an adequate job of training him in the use of lethal force. 

Then again, journalists can't get that other information either. The default position of the Fairfax County Police Department, Pope says, is to decline all requests for information. And not just from the media. When a member of the county SWAT team shot and killed 38-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi Jr. in 2006, it took nearly a year, plus legal action, to get the department to release information about its investigation of the shooting to Culosi's family. Culosi, who had been suspected of wagering on football games with friends, was also unarmed when he was killed. 

In a state that the professional journalism association Investigative Reporters and Editors ranks the fifth most transparent in the country, the police departments in Fairfax County, Arlington, and Alexandria have managed to interpret the open records law in a way that lets them be almost completely opaque. "Part of my daily routine when I worked in Florida was to drive to the police station and get a copy of the previous day's incident reports," Pope says. "I was just dumbfounded when I started working in Virginia." The police rejected all his requests for information—even for incident reports about arrests the same department had described in press releases. 

Invoking a phrase that traditionally refers to censorship, Fairfax County's Jennings told Pope that releasing police reports to the press would have a "chilling effect" on victims and witnesses, discouraging them from coming forward to report crimes. As Pope notes, that doesn't appear to be the case in cities that routinely release police reports, as nearly all do. When Pope asked Jennings what evidence she has to support her theory, she replied, "I don't know if there's evidence or not. All I have is what our investigators and what our commanders and the police administration believe." 

Don't expect elected officials to correct any of this. "I am in the corner of trusting our police department," Arlington County Board Member Barbara Favola told Pope. "If they push back I am not going to override them, and I don't think I could get three votes on the board to override them either."

Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney Randolph Sengel fired off an indignant letter to the editor after Pope wrote about the secrecy in the northern Virginia police departments. Calling Pope's well-reported piece a "rant" that was "thinly disguised as a news story," Sengel declared, "Law enforcement investigations and prosecutions are not carried out for the primary purpose of providing fodder for his paper." Mocking the media's role as a watchdog, Sengel added, "The sacred 'right of the public to know' is still (barely) governed by standards of reasonableness and civility," as if those two adjectives were incompatible with a journalist inquiring about the details of a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man. 

"The most offensive theme of this article," Sengel complained, "is the notion that law enforcement agencies decline to release these reports to protect their own, or to conceal corrupt behavior.…Believe it or not, the reporter and his colleagues are not the last true guardians of truth and justice, the attainment of which does not hang on unfettered exercise of journalistic zeal. Last time I checked there were multiple safeguards in place to assure the integrity of the criminal justice system." 

These are remarkably wrongheaded sentiments, especially coming from an elected prosecutor. There have been several cases across the country where police reports haven't jibed with video evidence or have otherwise turned out to be inaccurate. Journalists and advocacy groups have used public records to shed light on bogus arrests, police cover-ups, poor police training, and wrongful convictions. Sengel seems indignant at the very idea that a lowly journalist might be looking over his shoulder, or over the shoulders of the cops who bring him the people he prosecutes. Fairfax County hasn't charged a police officer for an on-duty shooting in 70 years. Perhaps that's because no officer there has deserved to be charged. But perhaps local police and prosecutors have too cozy a relationship. The point is, we don't know. And northern Virginia's cops have made it almost impossible to find out. 

Radley Balko (rbalko@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

144 responses to “Police Blackout

  1. Good morning reason!

    1. I didn’t see this article until 10 minutes ago. What do you know that I don’t?

      1. Good guesses could be magic or time travel. They can sometimes appear to be identical.

        1. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

          1. Yo AC! This is not sufficiently advanced yet to be indistinguishable to the trained observer who knows where they are.

          2. Fuckin’ magnets. How do they work?

        2. Magic or more Magic?

          http://catb.org/esr/jargon/html/magic-story.html

          As an aside, how does one format comments here?

          1. Nice story, RS.

            how does one format comments here?

            *Very* carefully.

            Seriously, if you’re asking about [i]italics[/i] (convert square to angle) etc., it’s just html.

        3. I believe it’s spelled Magicke

    2. Good morning Suki!

  2. The obvious libertarian solution is to privatize the governments and law enforcement agencies within Fairfax County.

  3. > Well, for starters, because he’s a government employee,
    > paid by taxpayers and entrusted with the power to arrest,
    > detain, coerce, and kill. And he recently used the
    > most serious of those powers on an unarmed man.

    That’s the kind of socialism that anti-government/small-government conservatives approve of.

    1. My God. You are one stupid shit

      1. *For lack of a better phrase

      2. No doubt. I learned not to end a sentence with a preposition in the fourth grade.

        What?

        1. I know I’m not supposed to do it, but I don’t know why. Will something bad happen? What should I be afraid of?

          1. What should I be afraid of?

            The cops?

          2. Internet grammar cops going all Walking Tall on your ass, with minimal transparency.

            1. They are the worst!

        2. I stopped writing by “the man’s” (that is my 300 pound female teacher’s) rules when books like Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath became required reading. Those things don’t follow any semblance of “proper” writing and yet are considered classics.

          Just don’t confuse they’re, there, and their and you should be fine.

          1. Or Huckleberry Finn.

        3. That’s the kind of socialism of which anti-government/small-government conservatives put.

  4. Mr. Balko, given your recent success with stories about the various atrocities police are committing all over the country, if I were you and got into trouble, I’d be leery of calling 911.

    I have a feeling that there are a lot of cops out there who simply don’t like you at this point.

    But keep up the good work. This cop removed the right to life for an unarmed man without due process, and without consent of a jury. He should have to explain himself.

    1. It’s my personal belief that Radley Balko is a pseudonym, simply because he does too much good work to not be in danger from the establishment.

      It’s impressive that the story is so unsurprising despite the perversion of justice it details that people are barely commenting on its content.

  5. The sacred ‘right of the public to know’ is still (barely) governed by standards of reasonableness and civility

    And in a reasonable and civil manner, we’ll share a press release with you that says we looked into it, and everything is OK. You can trust us – we’re reasonable AND civil.

    I hope there’s enough money to pursue the FOI request in the courts. With that kind of attitude one has to believe that the video will not fully support their account. Even if it doesn’t definitively show the officer was in the wrong, it most probably doesn’t clearly show any “furtive gesture”. If it did, they surely would have produced the video by now.

  6. Got your “furtive gesture” right here!

    1. Clearly, anybody who would flip off a cop is armed and looking for a gunfight.

  7. Cops are being are being dicks over here too:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2…..r_romford/

  8. That’s what happens when you give the state a monopoly on the administration of justice.

  9. Occupations come with perks.

    Restaurant workers often eat for free.
    Airline workers often travel at reduced rates.
    Those tasked with enforcing the law are not obligated to follow that which they enforce.

    1. Sex workers never do anything free. You just think it is free, if you think you got it free.

      1. The clap is free.

  10. http://secondcitycop.blogspot……ision.html

    Shockingly, there seems to be one cop in America who has some sense.

  11. Really a police force that doesn’t immediately hand it’s own over to the wolves, that protects their names being smeared in the press until proven guilty, that understands how lives and families of honest cops can be destroyed by reporting and suspicion of unjust force not yet proven? That’s pretty unusual. I’m not saying cops never use unjust force; but what happens far more often than that is the destruction of career family and reputation over the use ok just force. Nice to see a force with superiors who give their own the benefit of the doubt before throwing the under the media bus for a change, because usually the brass is too bueracratic to care about the fate of the common law man. I appreciate a lit about libertarianism, but the knee jerk anti- law enforcement attitude gets to be a bit much sometimes.

    1. Are you talking about the “common man” that they shot? Or the police officer who shot him, whose name we don’t even know?

      If someone shot a loved one, wouldn’t you want to find out who did it? Would it nake any difference to you if that person was an on-duty police officer? I can’t imagine it would.

    2. Gosh, that’s really insightful.

      Now, if it only had anything to do with the article, that would be even better!

    3. Here’s Fairfax County smearing an innocent (seriously, took the jury maybe 15 minutes to find him not guilty) man in the court of public opinion:

      http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/new…..fee_update

      “We’ve heard there may have been other people who had a similar incident,” said Mary Ann Jennings, a Fairfax County Police spokespersonpropagandist.”

    4. This only makes sense if it’s allowed to apply equally. Next time I get a speeding ticket I’m going to go before the judge and say “Your honor, I investigated my own speeding incident and found I was only going 70 MPH, not 85 MPH. I am not guilty.”. If the same standard applies, all charges should be dropped at that point, correct?

      1. Amen!

    5. “”that understands how lives and families of honest cops can be destroyed by reporting and suspicion of unjust force not yet proven?””

      How many times have false accusations from police destroy honest people’s lives?

      Do you have a problem with honest people’s lives being destroyed by false accusations, or just cops?

    6. The point is that the incidents may be entirely justifible. The officers might have completely been in the right.
      Or not.

      We have no way to knowing. The only available information is from the department’s investigation-and no details are even released from that other than “There’s nothing to see here-trust us.”

      That is the point.

    7. The citizen has a right to the presumption of innocence.

      Insofar as he is an agent of the State, a police officer has no such right. His right to presumption of innocence extends only to his (unlikely) criminal prosecution by the State, which is identical to the citizen’s right to presumption of innocence.

      1. Of course, I’m talking about natural rights here, not rights actually recognized by the State.

  12. Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings said, “Let us hear that concern,” “We are not hearing it from anybody except the media, except individual reporters.”

    i sent her a letter requesting info after Pope’s story came out. as expected, no response.

  13. I grew up in the city of Alexandria and Mount Vernon in Fairfax County. In fact, Richmond Highway runs through my old ‘hood. And that term is accurate. It is the poorest, highest-crime part of Fairfax County. So the cops around there are dealing with sketchy folks. But it isn’t as sketchy as DC, or Prince George’s County across the Potomac river in Maryland. Both of those localities’ police departments pretty regularly use excessive force on their citizens. Obviously, the recent trend of statist Marylanders moving to NoVa is manifesting itself in more ways than increasingly democratic-leaning voters.

    1. I find it endlessly amazing that the statist bastards will completely ruin an area, then move to a nearby non-ruined area and proceed to ruin it all over again. They’re like locusts, and they’re completely unaware that they’re the cause of their own misery. The MA residents moving to southern NH are a classic example.

      1. Californians are a plague upon the earth. They show up here in TX because the cost of living and taxes are lower, then whine how it’s not like CA and the government doesn’t do enough. The correlation between the two never occurs to them.

        1. A huge “me too” from us native Arizonans on the California effect. Arizona used to be very conservative, but with the Californians, Ohioans, and others from the rust belt moving in, we’ve become soft and weak.

          1. Yeah, I always say “soft and weak” when I see someone walking down the street strapped with an AK!

        2. Yankees are just as bad. Reminds me what an old Texan said many years ago: “Yankees are like hemorrhoids. If they come down and then go back up, they are tolerable. But if they come down and stay down, they’re a source of constant irritation.”

      2. I’ve said it before, but it’s largely a problem with democracy being defined by an area, rather than a group of people.

  14. If they’re innocent they’d have nothing to hide.

    1. Agreed. Isn’t that what they always tell us civilians when they are taking our rights away?

      Drug tests? If you don’t do drugs you have nothing to worry about.

      Patriot Act? If you’re not reading books we don’t approve of you have nothing to worry about.

      Unapproved wiretaps? If you don’t say anything we don’t approve of you have nothing to worry about.

      Boss reading your email? If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.

      But a police officer, a public servant, shoots an unarmed man on the streets? The public has no right to determine whether one of their employees acted appropriately!

      It is one thing to say that you know that your officers has acted properly, but in a culture of guaranteed secrecy and back-covering, arrogance and illegal acts are sure to follow.

      We learned that here in NC with our Highway Patrol and DMV police, (but never would have learned the extent of the wrongdoing without open records laws), and elsewhere they have learned, recently that their police have engaged in torture and cover-ups.

      Police, because of their position in society, need to be MORE transparent, and the public needs to be utterly confident that they will not abuse their power or position.

      A judge here in NC just determined that records generated by the government belong TO THE PEOPLE!! He also ruled that an agency does not have the unilateral right to decide whether they have fulfilled a records request to the satisfaction of the PEOPLE.

      Everyone here in America should hail this judge as a hero, because as soon as your public employees determine that they no longer are accountable to the people, they can do whatever they like to whomever they want.

      That is not a democracy, that is a dictatorship!

  15. Didn’t Reason post this story a few months ago???

    1. Indeed: https://reason.com/archives/201…..e-blackout

      But that was for the blog and this is for the print magazine. I wish RB had updated with any developments, or maybe there just haven’t been any.

  16. Sounds like it’s time to turn the tables on the police:

    If you have nothing to hide….

  17. Word on the street says Fairfax County, Virginia, will be soon renamed “Cop Land County, Virginia.”

  18. Excellent article; keep the heat on them.

  19. ….these assholes won’t have anyone to bother if everyone just moves a county away. I’ll certainly never live anywhere near VA, the scummiest state in the union (that’s saying a lot considering NJ, NY, IL, MI and CA).

    Get out folks, just get out.

    1. Oh I left VA many many moons ago after the fuckers stole my car. (impounded and then sold at auction cause I couldn’t afford the ransom to get it out of impound)

      1. I left the trash heap of IL for the same reason (among many, many others).

  20. fuck the popo.

  21. DB: Cops are being are being dicks over here [UK] too:

    The cops in the UK have never stopped being dicks. Strathclyde’s finest men in blue used to beat the shit out of US sailors and Marines when they were drunk in the Dunoon station house. For a time I was USN shore patrol and had to pick the sailors and Marines up in the morning and return them to the ship. I regret and it is to my shame that I was not a stronger man at the time (30 years ago) and had made some waves over it.

    1. you pussy

  22. Come on up to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (VA is a Commonwealth as well…coincidence?) where it is illegal for a civilian to record video of LEO’s in the performance of their duties..

  23. Hey, little bitches. Call the fire department when the shit hits the fan.

    Heh.

    1. OK. The fire department would produce better results without the robbery and murder cops routinely commit these days.

  24. Sounds like a good Institute of Justice new project to me.

  25. another unarmed man shot

    http://www.lvrj.com/news/polic…..04914.html

  26. This is really simple. An agency doesn’t want to disclose their misbehavior and won’t allow review of actions or inactions. If their is no documentation of their work then i guess no work was done. Pay them for their work. No documentation, no pay.

    You would think that they would be more professional. Guess a management review is in order and suggest replacement.

  27. What boggles the mind is the lack of a public outcry at this incident. I would be willing to bet there is a systemic failure to restrain force within this PD. Having lived in Virginia for 10 years (Roanoke and Richmond), I can attest that most municipalities are pretty easy to deal with and treat people reasonably. Having been detained for protesting by the most courteous cops I have encountered was a lot more pleasant than it could have been, I can assure you. This county is a blot on an otherwise (relatively) reasonable state.

    1. Of course, I live in California currently, so Virginia would obviously seem like a individual-rights paradise compared to here.

      Also, I can remember the days when I could go sit in the gallery at the House of Delegates with my 9 mm on my hip. I just had to hand it over to the guy running the metal detector and he handed it to me after I passed through (and they made me remove my belt because of the metal buckle, of course).

    2. When IS there public outcry over misdeeds by the police any more?

      This has become a “sit down and shut up” society.

      Result? Incidents like an 85 year old bed-bound woman being tased in her own home because the EMTs were called because her grandson wasn’t sure she had taken her meds.

      Every time one of us laughs at someone being tased, or laughs at the thought of someone being raped in prison because they “deserve” it, we become complicit and sew the seeds of our own destruction.

      1. The seeds were planted years and years ago – right now we live amongst the redwoods of destruction.

  28. So how can a regular citizen request this information? I know plenty of people who are willing to request this information.

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  30. Thank you for writing this. I live in Fairfax county and I feel bullied by the cops here. Is there anything we can do?

    1. Fight back

      1. Right. And why exactly is Reason running an ad for Fairfax county right now??????

  31. cops are a joke. how do they sleep at night? douchebags.

  32. In 2003, a police detective in Danville, VA tampered with a defense witness during a rape trial. The public defender did nothing about it. He, his boss and the assistant D.A. resigned soon after I began contacting VA officials. This case also involves corrupt Danville officials from a judge on down, so Virginia state officials claim they don’t have the authority to do anything about it. They have shut this case down by not investigating and not giving the defendant an appeal attorney. It’s a cover up.
    http://dvjustice.blogspot.com

  33. Let’s face it, refusing to allow public scrutiny – especially after an officer commits a homicide – is a sure sign of a corrupt force. We saw this first hand when my wife was falsely accused of speeding and our lawyer informed us of the corruption in the Fairfax force. We broke the officer’s lying by demonstrating that he was lying to the court. Of course we still had to pay court costs. Allowing an officer to murder a motorist only shows the depth of their depravity!

  34. The police are mistaking their place. They are not the rulers, they are the servants. They are not in a position to deny the records, those are called “public records” for a reason. The fact that the court won’t make them do it tells you that you have a little kingdom there. When the cop spokesperson talks like that to someone asking a good question, that is abusive. And psychologically, it tells you that the police culture is very much US vs THEM, and you and I are THEM. Not a good place to be. It used to be that we were all on the same side. Now, it’s clearly cops VS everybody, and NONE of US can be trusted. Any public servant who tells you that you don’t have a right to know should be immediately canned and an investigation started. Something VERY bad is going on, or they wouldn’t want to keep everything so secret. There is illegal behavior going on at high levels, count on it. Better look and find it now, or it will just get worse. It always does.

  35. I’d certainly look at making a point to go through the state level instead of local. There is always a way around local idiots. I’d laugh if you got the info and blew open a huge series of screw ups by them that they don’t want anyone to know about.

  36. If the police department is following procedure then it should have no problems responding to open records inquiries if only to demonstrate their thorough investigation analysis of potentially controversial cases. If they did their jobs well then why conceal information ?

    Law enforcement departments are financed with tax dollars and need to be reminded that they are accountable to the community they serve. This includes abiding with requests for information. Corruption thrives in closed environments so their lack of transparency is a red flag. Don’t let up on this though it sounds like the local politicians are part of this also.

    This is the kind of attitude exhibited by small towns back in the day (who many times were guilty of improper police procedure) but this shouldn’t be tolerated in 2010.

  37. Sounds like a Police state to me! Any body remember what happened in Germany in the 1930’s. Revolution on our soil is close at hand!

  38. I guess releasing those police reports could also have a “chilling effect” on the police’s ability to kill citizens and get away with it.

  39. Really taking the cake away from the NYPD.

  40. When we we stop allowing the criminal cops to investigate themselves?

  41. There’s gonna be no “revolution.” But if public outrage built up to a certain level, there might be people in your neighborhood who start disappearing without a trace.

  42. This doesnt shock me at all. I live in Fairfax county and i can tell you first hand these officers have nothing to protect and serve except for their god complex. This is the same police department that arrested someone while INSIDE a bar for DRUNK IN PUBLIC. they also arrested a man for drunk in public at his home. He was too drunk to drive so he called a taxi, the police car followed the taxi to his home and when the passenger stepped out he was arrested for drunk in public.

  43. Do you think of one citizen in Fairfax county shot another citizen for making a “furtive gesture” that the DA would refrain from prosecuting the case?

  44. Secrecy is fertilizer for corruption. If there wasn’t corruption before the blackout, there certainly will be now. There is no reason to have secrecy for an agency with authority over the public, except to conceal goals and activities which are not about protecting the public.

  45. This is why I have never supported them investigating themselves. City Cops should be investigated by the County, County by the state, and the State by Either the AG its self or a Federal Agency…

  46. Fairfax County Police Department
    For Non-Emergencies Call 703-691-2131

    I encourage everyone to call and make an open records request on any information pertaining to the shooting of David Masters, if you wish.

  47. Seems like the best course of action would be to get all the Arlington County Board Members on record regarding this issue and then replace them with members who will either correct this or disband the murderous cops in favor of true Peace Officers.

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  65. Really a police force that doesn’t immediately hand it’s own over to the wolves, that protects their names being smeared in the press until proven guilty, that understands how lives and families of honest cops can be destroyed by reporting and suspicion of unjust force not yet proven? That’s pretty unusual. ???? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ????? ?????? ??????? I’m not saying cops never use unjust force; but what happens far more often than that is the destruction of career family and reputation over the use ok just force. Nice to see a force with superiors who give their own the benefit of the doubt before throwing the under the media bus for a change, because usually the brass is too bueracratic to care about the fate of the common law man. I appreciate a lit about libertarianism, but the knee jerk anti- law enforcement attitude gets to be a bit much

  66. Mr. Balko, given your recent success with stories about the various atrocities police are committing all over the country, if I were you and got into trouble, I’d be leery of calling 911.
    ???? ?????? ????? ??????? ???? ?? ?????? ???????
    I have a feeling that there are a lot of cops out there who simply don’t like you at this point.

    But keep up the good work. This cop removed the right to life for an unarmed man without due process,

  67. t Masters. The shooting, Morrogh found, was justified due to a “furtive gesture” that suggested Masters had a we

  68. port itself. But the public and the press are unlikely to see those, or even to learn the officer’s name. That’s because the

  69. of Masters’ shooting. There are also police interviews of other witnesses

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