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Virginia Law Shields Police From Transparency

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Hailu Brook did not have a handgun, although the Arlington County Police Department press release issued the day of the shooting said he did.
Graphic by Lawrence Foong of Connection Newspapers
Hailu Brook did not have a handgun, although the Arlington County Police Department press release issued the day of the shooting said he did.

In December of 2008, the Fairfax Police Department chased 19-year-old Hailu Brook across the county line into Arlington and shot him dead. A press release from the Arlington County Police Department said he was holding a handgun, a fact that later turned out to be untrue.

"It was a weapon that appeared to be a handgun," says Arlington County Police Chief Douglas Scott.

Scott refused to release the official report of the shooting to the public. Instead, what's left is an incorrect press release, and a promise that the police have thoroughly investigated the case.

According to Scott, the object Brook was holding was an air pistol that resembled a real handgun. When asked whether the department should have worded the press release differently, Scott replied that their releases don't usually go into "that level of detail."

Across Virginia, there's almost no detail provided about crime that happens every day. From petty larceny to murder, state police officials routinely deny access to basic documents, such as incident reports. In the case of Hailu Brook, his father Brook Beshah can't even get a copy of the report clearing the Fairfax officers who killed his son.

"I wish they were more transparent," he says. "Transparency wouldn't kill anybody. It is only when we have transparency that we will find accountability."

Earlier this year, a state integrity investigation ranked and graded each of the 50 states on government accountability, transparency and corruption. Virginia got an F.

Lucy Dalglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the police are abusing an exemption clause in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

"There is no question that under some circumstances that it is in the public interest to protect the identities of some victims and some witnesses," says Dalglish. "I just don't think it is necessary to protect the identities of all victims and all witnesses in all circumstances."

Several attempts have been made in Richmond to provide more sunlight on police documents, but powerful law enforcement associations have opposed those efforts.

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Michael Pope is also a reporter with the Connection Newspapers who provides special coverage of Northern Virginia for WAMU 88.5. His story for the Connection can be found at ArlingtonConnection.com.  

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