Virginia Wisely Rejects Secret Police

Imagine a future in which the government keeps secret the identity of every member of state and local law enforcement.

It’s a frightening, Orwellian scenario that some legislators in Virginia thought was a good idea. Fortunately, a state House of Delegates subcommittee blocked the bill on Thursday, which would have allowed even more government information to be hidden away under the state’s F-rated open government laws.

Senate Bill 552, sponsored by Sen. John A. Cosgrove Jr. (R-Chesapeake), would have exempted from public disclosure the names of every full- or part-time law enforcement officer and fire marshal in Virginia, including Alcohol Beverage Control officers, lottery investigators, local dogcatchers, state fish and game wardens and marine police, deputy sheriffs, and rookie traffic cops as well as the highest ranking law enforcement officers in the commonwealth.

Proponents of the bill said it was necessary to protect police officers and their families from bad guys who might seek to harm them. They were not, however, able to provide any evidence proving their point. That is because shielding individual officers from evil-doers is not why the bill was introduced.

The bill came about in response to an effort last year by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Virginia Beach to obtain names and training records of active duty law enforcement as part of a “Spotlight”-type investigation, which broke the pedophilia scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston and inspired an Oscar-nominated film. The Pilot wanted to find out whether officers dismissed for misconduct in one jurisdiction were being passed along to other departments to be put back on the streets with a badge and gun.

For now, at least, this dystopic vision can remain just a fantasy for law enforcement.

Such an investigation could well draw attention to an ugly truth about law enforcement in Virginia. The process by which police officers can be decertified, preventing them from moving from locality to locality and repeating bad behavior, is shamefully weak and presents a danger to the public.

The Virginia Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police fought the release of officer names and training records to the Virginian-Pilot in court. They lost, and so then they tried to change the law to make the records secret while misleading the public about their motivations and the bill’s real purpose.

Let’s be clear: SB 552 was not about protecting individual officers or their families from harm. The sheer breadth of personnel covered by the act made that obvious. In addition, departments already have discretion to withhold an officer’s personal information from the public where there is an actual threat of harm. This bill was about making it difficult, if not impossible, for the press or the public to examine the hiring practices of Virginia law enforcement agencies or to develop a case for changes in our weak decertification law.

SB 552 was also not in the interests of state and local law enforcement agencies if they are actually serious about their commitment to greater transparency and accountability that are essential to earn the trust of the people they are supposed to serve.

SB 552 certainly would not have served the public interest. The public pays the salaries of every police officer and has a right to demand more, not less, transparency and accountability as conditions of earning its trust and support. The fact is the public actually would have been less safe if this measure had passed because it would have helped hide the type of problem the Virginian-Pilot was seeking to uncover. The result would have been that officers with multiple disciplinary violations, even for serious misconduct involving use of force, would continue to be enabled to practice policing in Virginia with the public being none the wiser.

For that very reason, SB 552 also was an attack on the heart of the First Amendment. To the founding generation, the liberties of speech and press were intimately connected with popular sovereignty and the right of the people to see, to examine, and to be informed about the workings of their government. Police officers are the government agents everyday people interact with the most and therefore deserve — and should expect — public scrutiny.

Proponents tried to minimize the bill’s impact by saying it wouldn’t really have prohibited release of officers’ names. They said the bill simply specified that names are part of personnel records and, as such, would be exempt from mandatory disclosure.

Guess what? Government agencies in Virginia — and law enforcement ones in particular — rarely release public documents if not required to do so. The culture of secrecy that permeates law enforcement agencies in Virginia all but ensures that any record that can be withheld from the public will be withheld.

Virginia’s shoddy Freedom of Information Act lists 130 types of records that are exempt from mandatory disclosure to the public. Almost without fail, anytime a member of the public asks for a document that might fall under an exemption, the government chooses to withhold it. Beyond that, agencies often just flout the toothless law, refusing to disclose documents that actually are required to be released.

If SB 552 had passed, the secrecy of police officers’ identities would have been a given not a possibility. For now, at least, this dystopic vision can remain just a fantasy for law enforcement.

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gerard mcloughlin

thank you for exposing this very very bad law

Michael

I can't express how great of an organization the ACLU is. I am not a Virginia resident but am a very active civil liberty proponent and this news is a long time coming. Now days, it is the police who are aggressors and the deceitful individuals. We pay them with our taxes whether we like the service they provide us or not and SB 552 would have kept them even more "off limits" in terms of record access than agencies nationwide already are. This is a huge victory on so many fronts and it is paramount that folks know that on a daily basis police officers bounce from department to department with unresolved issues in their backgrounds and dozens of lawsuits to their name, but are rarely if ever indicted or fired. This is super dangerous and it falls on not only activists such as myself, but on every member of the public to do public record requests often and force accountability on those who swore and oath and gobble up our taxes for their cushy pensions. GREAT JOB ACLU of VA!!

Savanna Perkey

Dear ACLU of VA,

Even though I don't reside in the state of Virginia, I am glad that you have exposed this Orwellian law. Our country is infamous for sticking it's nose where it doesn't belong, and that is not the idea I want to convey to the world. There's an old saying that I know is true in our modern civilization, "Those who don't study history, are doomed to repeat it." By uncovering this scandalous law, you are halting the repeat of unfortunate history. If Virginia went forward with the decision, it would be a devastating reminder of the Secret Police appointed by the Nazis during the Depression into WWII. All in all, thanks for protecting our freedom to privacy.

linda in Va

KUDOS! To the Aclu once again for an excellent job of protecting the civil liberties of the citizenry.

Anonymous

thank you

Anonymous

I think it's great that the ACLU has decided to write about secret police issues, as we definitely need more transparency in this country.

However, there is already a secret police eating away at the U.S. like a cancer. Maybe one day, the ACLU will have the gall to address the Cointelpro-type secret-police tactics that are used on innocent people every day--including activists, journalists, and everyday people who question authority. Just search "Fight Gang Stalking" to see what despicable crimes the government's alphabet agencies and your friendly local police are up to.

Watch-listed Target

If you are a whistle-blower or an individual targeted by the FBI’s illegal stalking and harassment program, they will illegally intercept all of your phone calls, and then approach all of your friends and contacts with false accusations. These accusations often include rape, pedophilia, sexual deviancy, crimes of violence, mental instability or a combination of any of the aforementioned.

The contacts and friends will be coerced, threatened and in some cases financially compensated by the FBI (working in conjunction with InfraGard and the DHS) to help with a “national security issue.” The individuals they contact will first be asked to assist in simple “monitoring” before they are given statements and comments to make which are geared to get the targets to admit to engaging in, or having the propensity to commit some type of illegal activity. Targets are also set up by the FBI for a non-stop string of illegal entrapment operations.

After the FBI “burns” all of the target’s family, friends and professional connections as “agents provocateurs,” they will then approach individuals who own or work in commercial locations which the target frequents.

The FBI abuses the system and law by illegally using Non-disclosure Agreements (NDA’s) to get said individuals to cooperate in unconstitutional activities against whistle-blowers and innocent Americans. The FBI has attempted to marginalize and destroy tens of thousands of Americans as part of their Stasi-styled, post 9/11 Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

For a more complete understanding of how the FBI operates, look up “Zersetzung.” Versus providing security for the U.S.A., rogue factions within the FBI are running a vicious and hard-core criminal network which is geared towards destroying innocent Americans who have never been involved in any illegal activity.

I was brought up to respect and trust law enforcement, and I do indeed respect those that uphold the letter of the law and protect our communities and country from dangerous people. We all owe honest and law-abiding law enforcement officers that debt of appreciation - and benefit of the doubt.

However I have come to realize that there are certain elements within federal law enforcement, especially within the FBI, that trod over the constitution in their quest to oppress innocent Americans.

The FBI doesn’t only target the bad guys anymore and a lot of what I used to assume was sloppy domestic tradecraft and poor information flow, in reality now appears to be sociopathic and hateful endeavors to target, harass, isolate and destroy anyone who these rogue oprators feel will speak out against their campaign of unbridled control.

While there are some great people working within the FBI, they have Counter-Intelligence (COINTEL) units that are engaged in terrorizing innocent people, destroying their lives and families, breaking into their homes, killing their pets, looting their properties, destroying their reputations and futures.

This is no accident. This is not collateral damage. Certain groups within the FBI have evolved into a Stasi-like secret police force bent on destroying innocent lives, which constitute the very fabric of America.

Anonymous

Please help the victims of the National Institute of Justice's "intelligent surveillance" research. The NIJ is using our taxpayer dollars to violate our constitutional rights, recklessly endanger our lives, and torture us 24/7. Senator Kaine told me that this program funds Newport News Police Department and Virginia state police. Both are required to have a signed informed consent form for each human subject. The NIJ follows the common rule. Citizens need to request the name and contact number for the IRB as well as the grant administrator. We need to ask our senators to defund the NIJ for failure to follow the "common rule" and for violations of our constitutional rights as well as the torture and murder of thousands of innocent citizens. The perps are state and local police. The funding is the NIJ. In addition, cops steal the identity of the victim and use Medicaid to supplement their nonconsensual human subject research. This is a felony. They must allow us to opt out. The NIJ are required by law to pay for our attorney fees, medical expenses, and any change in financial position as well as punitive damages! I now have cancer throughout my body as a direct result of this technology. The NIJ, Newport News Police and Virginia state police are to blame for my cancer and stealing a decade of my life along with Yan Byalik, 105 Beacon Way, Newport News, VA 23606 their IT guy! He keeps his twins on leashes. Are there any attorneys with integrity in the U. S.?

Ronald T Markus

Well done ACLU! If anything we need much greater transparency with respect to law enforcement personnel. And once this is achieved we need to initiate some very scrupulous record keeping and a national tracking database on these characters. How much can America take of blatant abuses of justice and power grabs such a this? I recall a Readers Digest story, oddly written as a humor, where 2 men are hired on as Sheriff's deputies after a rape accusation and many IA complaints about extortion one of the other deputies discovers that the two men are convicted felons and are currently wanted for bank robberies two states away. Not funny.

Anonymous

In response to post/2001 CoinTelPro activities resulting in loss of almost $500,000 in income over 15 years, I requested a formal apology from James Comey and the operator refused to provide her name - federal agencies do it also.

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