Virginia considers bill making police officers' names secret

The Virginia state legislature is considering a bill that could exempt police officers from Freedom of Information Act name disclosure. Critics say that the bill presents accountability issues, while supporters say it protects officer safety.

Bob Brown/AP
Delegate Matt Fariss (R) of Campbell, foreground, and other members look toward the voting board as a vote is taken during the floor session of the House of Delegates at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 9.

Proposed bill SB 552 that would exempt the mandatory disclosure of police officer names from Freedom of Information Act requests is moving forward through the Virginia legislature.

The bill was proposed by state Senator James Cosgrove (R) in January, 2016. If passed, it would prevent police officer names, positions, job classifications, or other personally identifying information from being released in the event of a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to Senator Cosgrove, this action is necessary to protect law enforcement officials from what he says is a dangerous time for police officers.

“It used to be that there was a healthy respect for law enforcement,” said Cosgrove. “Now they’ve become targets of opportunity.”

Cosgrove collaborated on the bill with the Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. According to The Virginian-Pilot, the bill was introduced after the newspaper requested the names and employment history of Virginia police officers in order to track movement from department to department.

The Virginian-Pilot reports that Cosgrove said that releasing such information could be risky for officers. “We want to make sure their safety is assured (and) their families are not put at risk,” said Cosgrove, “just because their information as law enforcement officers is available.”

It is important to note that the bill would only exempt mandatory disclosure, not disclosure altogether.

Virginia is considering this legislation in the midst of a national wave of allegations of police misconduct and brutality, from New York to Chicago, Saint. Louis to Baltimore.

“It’s always concerning when the government says to the public: “trust us” as it moves to limit transparency and accountability,” says Clay Hansen, Assistant Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, a non-profit defender of First Amendment rights, “particularly when, as here, transparency and accountability are central to the current wave of public criticism and press inquiries surrounding alleged police misconduct.”

Critics of the bill say that if police departments are exempt from mandatory release of information, there is no guarantee that the public will have any means of telling exactly how public officials are spending public money.

“Police can certainly be targets of retribution,” said Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “There are also other government employees that make unpopular decisions that make them targets.” Ms. Rhyne added that there are already laws in place that allow names to be taken off of online statements, for example, if the officer named receives a threat.

Mr. Hansen told the Monitor by email that there is no reason to believe that simply releasing the names and training records of police officers will pose any real threat to their safety.

SB 552 is not important only due to the national context of police violence and brutality. It is, as both Rhyne and Hansen say, an accountability issue.

“It is important for the public to realize that this is more basic than police brutality,” says Rhyne. “We demand government accountability in a number of areas, not the least of which is public funds.”

Although the bill would not prevent the release of salary data, Rhyne says that salaries might not be connected to their recipients by name in public record.

Some other states have similar measures. The Virginian-Pilot reports that New Jersey and West Virginia are both considering measures that would allow officials to withhold police officer names under certain circumstances.

“While other states have proposed similar exemptions for information about law enforcement officers, none of these measures have come close to the scope of Virginia’s proposed exemptions,” says Hansen. “The problem with this bill is that it attempts to address this concern in the least narrowly tailored manner imaginable.”

The bill passed in the Virginia Senate by a margin of 25-15. It will now move forward to a House of Delegates subcommittee.

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