Civil Liberties

Concern About Police Secrecy = "Tilting at Windmills"?


My column this week was about the continuing secrecy of Virginia's largest police departments and the way the state's law enforcement community is opposing efforts to make the departments even marginally more transparent. The journalist sounding the alarm about all of this is Michael Pope, who writes for Northern Virginia's Connection Newspapers, and contributes to D.C. NPR affiliate WAMU.

But Pope's series of articles inspired this strange reaction from the editor of the Sun Gazette, another Northern Virginia regional paper (motto: "Reaching the most affluent audience in the Washington D.C. metro area").

Stop Tilting at Windmills, Connectionerinos

The Connection newspaper chain, which is hanging in there by seemingly defying the laws of economics, has a new cause to champion.

The paper's Arlington edition, and presumably others, ran a story this week about the ability of Virginia's public-safety agencies to shield information from the view of the public and the press.

I think this whole folderol dates back to last year's arrest of the Alexandria police chief on a DWI charge in Arlington. Let's just say Arlington police weren't as forthcoming as they might have been, going so far as to charge news outlets for costs related to providing some of the meager information they released.

The back story to this appears to be that the reporter involved with this story used to work in Florida (as did I!), where open-records laws are great for the press. Just about everything is open to public review down there.

But the article goes a bit too far with a sub-headline that says "Secret Police?" as if Northern Virginia was akin to East Germany, and terms what public-safety agencies do a "code of silence."

Blah, blah, blah, blah. Nobody cares except some freedom-of-the-press types. Hey, I'm a freedom-of-the-press type, and even I don't care all that much.

Actually, the "whole folderol" took off when Fairfax County police shot and killed an unarmed man during a traffic stop last year, and have since refused to release the police reports, dash cam footage, or even the officer's name.

But, you know, dead citizen, cops not talking . . . blah blah blah blah. Better to devote precious newsroom resources to the important stuff, like the local mini-golf tournament, or how the local police department won an award for ticketing people who don't wear their seatbelts.