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By Michael Pope
Remember that Fairfax police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man on Richmond Highway? There was an official police report in that case, known as an incident report in Virginia. But the police have refused to release it.
In fact, across Virginia police routinely refuse to release these most basic documents, and that's all perfectly legal under Virginia's Freedom of Information law.
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says there's only one reason police choose to keep people in the dark.
"People might know what they're up to," she says. "Let's face it. If you have control over information and you control the information about how your agency is operating, there's much less likelihood that citizens will be able to second guess how you are running your department."
Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings says not true. She says there's a reason not to release the raw information.
"Those incident reports contain the names and addresses and contact information of witnesses and victims of crimes," she says. "If those were to become public at any point, then we feel very strongly that the victims of crime will be less likely to come to us."
That's an explanation that doesn't sit will with advocates for open government.
"I think the argument is without merit," says Charles Davis, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "Incident reports like the ones that the Virginia law enforcement authorities are saying can't possibly be released are being released across the country every waking minute of every day."
Florida has been doing it for decades. Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, says not only doesn't it hurt their ability to get information from victims and witnesses, but it actually helps--in precisely the way open-government advocates claim.
"In Florida, with the transparency level that we have, it helps law enforcement," says Bailey. "It's made us better agencies simply because we proceed knowing that our work product is going to be reviewed by the press, by the public or by the people who are actually involved in the case we are working."
Despite such testimony, Virginia isn't likely to become a paragon of open government anytime soon. Lawmakers are reluctant to oppose police organizations, and police strongly oppose releasing more information.
And that Fairfax County police shooting? The prosecutor declined to bring charges. The police say they're still investigating internally. But we're unlikely to ever know more than what the they're willing to tell us.