Transparency

Trust Me: You Can Trust Us

Northern Virginia's police departments are determined to keep the public from knowing what they're doing.

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In April I wrote a column about the secretive habits of three large police departments in Virginia's Washington, D.C., suburbs: Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Arlington. As Connection Newspapers reporter Michael Pope showed in a series of reports that began in March, they are among the least transparent departments in the country, having interpreted Virginia's Freedom of Information Act in a way that allows them to turn down nearly all requests for information.

Recently there have been a couple of attempts to make Virginia's law enforcement agencies more transparent. As I reported in June, Nicholas Beltrante, an 82-year-old former cop and Navy medic, started the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. And in January, state Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) introduced a bill that would force police to turn over public records in cases where the investigation has been completed.

Michael Pope's initial attempts to obtain information, even about mundane cases or arrests the department itself was highlighting in press releases, met with astonishing disdain. Police were not only stingy with information; they were smug and arrogant about it. When asked why she couldn't release the name of a Virginia police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man last November, Fairfax County police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings replied, "What does the name of an officer give the public in terms of information and disclosure? I'd be curious to know why they want the name of an officer."

After Pope's first article on the lack of disclosure, Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney Randolph Sengel, the city's elected chief prosecutor, responded with a sneering, condescending letter to the editor brimming with contempt for outsiders who try to hold law enforcement agencies accountable. "Last time I checked there were multiple safeguards in place to assure the integrity of the criminal justice system," Sengel wrote. "Conscientious and dedicated judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement officers work in a system which is as transparent as it needs to be…The sacred 'right of the public to know' is still (barely) governed by standards of reasonableness and civility."

Meanwhile, the elected officials who are supposed to oversee law enforcement in these jurisdictions told Pope they saw nothing wrong with all the secrecy. "I am in the corner of trusting our police department," said Arlington County Board Member Barbara Favola.

Sen. Edwards' bill—which was considered by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that advises lawmakers and government officials, at a hearing last week—is a partial response to such attitudes. If enacted, it would make Virginia's police departments a bit more transparent, although they would still have the power to routinely deny requests for information about open cases.

In response to fierce opposition from law enforcement, Edwards amended his bill to require that people seeking information about closed cases ask a judge for an order requiring police departments to turn over public documents. But as Pope reported this week, the change did not appease the bill's opponents. Instead of requiring police departments to provide a compelling reason for withholding public records, the latest compromise plan would put the burden on the petitioner to convince a judge that the records should be released. Even that isn't enough for the bill's critics, who prefer that police departments have complete discretion to withhold department records.

Pope reported that "police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs from across Virginia" spoke against Edwards' bill" at last week's hearing, complaining that "incident reports were raw and unedited documents full of accusations and opinions that would reveal police operations to criminals." They also warned that releasing such documents would "create a chilling effect on victims and witnesses," discouraging them from "coming forward to share information." These worries are red herrings. Nearly every other police department in the country releases police reports to the public without compromising investigations, public safety, or the security of witnesses. Sensitive information such as the identity of police informants or the names of witnesses can be redacted.

The real motive for the current policy seems to be preventing watchdogs and journalists from scrutinizing police reports for accuracy and consistency or examining the history, training, and temperament of officers who are involved in shootings. Consider the case of Jonathan Ayers, a pastor killed by undercover narcotics officers during a botched drug sting in Lavonia, Georgia, last year. Ayers, who was counseling a prostitute and low-level drug offender, was unarmed, had no drugs on him, and appears to have done nothing wrong. An internal investigation and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry cleared the officers involved in Ayers' death of any wrongdoing. But months later, a local TV station and attorneys for Ayers' widow discovered that Billy Shane Harrison, the officer who killed Ayers, not only hadn't received proper training in the use of lethal force but wasn't legally permitted to carry his service weapon. In fact, under state law, he wasn't even permitted to be a police officer. If Harrison had killed Ayers in Virginia, we might still not know his name, much less that he had no business wearing a badge that day.

Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney Sengel, who insists the criminal justice system does fine on its own without intrusion by nosy outsiders, attended last week's hearing on Edwards' bill to reiterate his opposition to greater transparency. "Other than people out there who want to write books like Truman Capote, I don't think we've heard a compelling need for this," Sengel said, according to Pope's report on the hearing. "It's designed to address a problem that really doesn't exist, and it would create a situation that's much worse than what we have today."

We could just take Sengel's word for it. But the truth is that we don't know if there are problems inside Northern Virginia's police departments, because Northern Virginia's police departments refuse to release any information to the public. When Sengel investigates a business in Alexandria for fraud, he doesn't let its executives off the hook as long as they give him their word that everything is on the up and up. Yet Sengel would have us believe that law enforcement officials are incapable of corruption, collusion, and deceit—because they (and he) say so.

Law enforcement officials are as fallible as the rest of us. The major difference between them and us is that they are entrusted with the most direct and dramatic power we give the government: the power to arrest, to detain, and to kill. Their failures can rob people of their freedom or their lives. That's more than enough reason to hold them at least as accountable as any other government official. And it's more than enough reason to take back their power, their office, and their paycheck when they refuse to make themselves answerable to the people they serve.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason.

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  1. Man, I first read that as Vagina’s Secret Police.

    I need to get my eyes checked.

    1. I’m a member.

      Late for my inspections though, need leave these stupid forums…

  2. Where’s Wikileaks when you need them? I’d like a data dump of all those databases released on the internet; who knows how much shit they don’t want the public to know is on those servers?

  3. Northern Virginia and across the river, Prince George’s county, MD. It’s as if the arrogance and thuggery of DC spreads like an infection.

    1. Ok… I am the first to agree that NoVa needs more government transparency, but to compare any of Fairfax, Alexandria, or Arlington PDs to PG County’s is a bit much.

      I admit that Fairfax seems to have a problem with their driver training, but they haven’t yet killed the mayor’s dogs while raiding his house, and I think they’re slacking on the motorist beatings when compared to PG.

      Of course, as Radley says, we might not know, but at least we can carry in the car.

      1. Fairfax cops have long-since graduated from killing dogs for sport to killing humans for sport.

        justiceforsal.com

        1. I’m not defending FCPD on Sal Culosi’s death in any way, shape or form. I tend to think that was pure negligent incompetence rather than malice, but I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.

  4. Makes me think of the Movie – “A Few Good Men” – when Jack says to Tom – “You can’t Handle the truth” — And look what he was hiding — Scary chit

  5. When asked why she couldn’t release the name of a Virginia police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man last November, Fairfax County police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings replied, “What does the name of an officer give the public in terms of information and disclosure? I’d be curious to know why they want the name of an officer.”

    How does one say something like that and not get punched in the throat? I see where there are consequences, but it seems like it would be just a reflex action if I were to be standing near someone who said that.

    1. because you’d then be shot dead, and Mary wouldn’t have to reveal her own name, and she would be cleared of all wrongdoing.

  6. When they come to our house, they say that if we have nothing to hide, we wouldn’t object to a search. We go to their house and they release the hounds.

    “Other than people out there who want to write books like Truman Capote, I don’t think we’ve heard a compelling need for this,”

    How about the fact that you work for US, idiot.

  7. I will not respond to any rumors that Mary Ann Jennings and myself engage in three-way sheep fucking.

    1. Since she won’t release the records, we’ll just have to note that she hasn’t denied fucking sheep and/or you.

      1. Time to file a FOIA under Rule 34.

  8. The family crest is an image of a sheepdog pissing into a gondola

  9. Another in the long line of gut-punches Radley has been delivering on this topic. NOVA has among the most corrupt police forces in the Commonwealth that I used to call home. There is no consistency in the way they persecute and prosecute. From the fire-breathing bartenders to the cop who kills someone, they seem to exist for the sole purposes of revenue-generation and exertion of political muscle for their progressive/fascist masters.

    Having lived in the tidewater area, the RIC and Roanoke at various times in my life, I can safely say that most cops in the rest of the state were respectful, tolerant and courteous (even when arresting me for protesting). They may be different now, but that’s the way I remembered them from 5 years+ ago. Cops in NOVA, on the other hand, have decided they will become the lord and master of the beltway since 9/11 for our own protection. Their constant fear-mongering have given them near-autonomous power and the net result are a group of police than cannot be questioned.

    It is a sad state of affairs for a once great metro area.

    1. I do think that they’ve been heavily indoctrinated by DHS about the “terrorist threat.” I’m not sure that much good comes of that for the common man, especially if he has idiosyncratic hobbies.

      I do have to admit that for the most part Fairfax PD has been quite professional when I’ve dealt with them. I completely agree that the standards for prosecution seem arbitrary, (that’s more of a Commonwealth Attorney problem than a police one) and their refusal to allow public accountability for police who KILL people accidentally is deplorable. I’m sure they’re concerned for the officers’ safety, but seriously, when was the last time any of us instigated a lynch mob?

      They (and I include the Court Clerk’s office in this) do try to press the boundaries of laws they don’t like. I think that to this day they mail out concealed handgun permits on the very last day of their statutorily allowed window.

      In contrast to the Tidewater area though, Fairfax learned fairly quickly not to hassle law-abiding gun carriers. It seems as though Virginia Beach and Roanoke almost enjoy paying lawsuit settlements, and to the same people multiple times.

  10. Advice for lawn order conservatives: Trust, but verify.

  11. You know, I’d bet all of these jurisdictions are more than willing to release mug shots of accused, but not convicted, individuals to the local papers and TV station websites.

    But that’s public information that can only help them, so…

  12. If you let them, the “authorities” will fuck you!

  13. Maybe the NoVa police can team up with Hollywood and get Joe Pesci. Then they can improve efficiency by fucking you at the drive through.

    -oooh, triple pun – bonus points!

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    1. An occasional sweep-up of comment spam would be nice. It’s common courtesy, like wiping the toilet seat for traces of HIV.

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  15. Yeah, it’s the fucking NOVA police departments – what else would you expect?

    What’s actually pretty odd is that NOVA is dominated by lefty weenies who get their panties in a bunch if the line is too long at Starbucks and wet those panties if they have to SEE a person actually carrying a gun – unless, of course, the person is “the police.” You’d think with the predominantly left-leaning proclivities, they might be a bit more concerned about the growing police state in which they’re living.

    But then again, those types do tend to be overly obsessed with the government making sure everything and everyone is “safe” all the time. Amazing what they’re willing to give up in the name of a little perceived “safety.”

  16. absolute power corrupts absolutely… I feel sorry for the sheeple of NoVa. maybe the rest of VA needs to vote them into the DC district as not to taint their reputation…

    the only reason the PD fear information is that maybe the MSM might catch onto their schemes.

    While I generally support LEOs. the whole “they have more rights then we do” ,when referring to “bad guys,” gives me the feeling that they are above the law.

  17. The big picture, once again, is of vehement antagonism between police and the “citizens” who pay them. Is the whole idea of protecting and serving nostalgia for a bygone time, or did it never even exist in the first place?

  18. I get angry when I read articles like this. There needs to be more accountability in all gov’t from the bottom to the top.

  19. Someone should open a KFC next to the police station.

  20. I smell the stench of masonry- ala that sociopathic “Fraternal Order of Police”

  21. We should definitely work to ensure that Capt. Bryant’s admonition in Blade Runner doesn’t become any more true than it already is.

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