The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill to grant police and sheriff’s departments virtually unlimited latitude to refuse to release the names of its officers via Freedom of Information Act requests.
Senate Bill 552 passed the Senate on a 25-15, bi-partisan vote. It would classify all officers names as personnel records, exempting them from mandatory disclosure. By all accounts, it is the most sweeping measure of its kind in the country.
Governor McAuliffe has thus far been silent on the bill. The House of Delegates is holding hearings today.
Supporters claim the bill is necessary to protect our law enforcement officers from the threat of deadly retaliation. Opponents, both on the left and right, warn it goes far beyond safety and essentially would create “secret police” in Virginia.
The bill is being heavily scrutinized as it should be. Any time an agency that exercises the police powers of our government wants to become in any way less transparent and less accountable, it warrants the most intense public scrutiny.
Clearly, the safety of our law enforcement officers is critical. No one would argue, for example, that an undercover officer should have his or her identity revealed while they are in harm’s way.
However, this bill appears to have come about because a news organization was interested in whether officers with disciplinary problems in one department were finding work in departments elsewhere. If so, Virginians are right to be concerned about its origin along with its potential implications.
Our law enforcement officers deserve our respect and deserve to do their dangerous jobs in the safest manner possible. At the same time, the public deserves the strongest levels of accountability from those who can deprive them of their liberty. In fact, the bill’s supporters should be concerned such secrecy could erode public trust with law enforcement.
The bottom line is, there are serious questions about whether this legislation is warranted, and the Members of the General Assembly and the Governor must carefully consider all of its implications.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.