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Should Virginia Police Names Be Secret? General Assembly Is Poised To Say Yes

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Cosgrove, whose bill would allow police agencies to keep the names of their officers 
secret, watches the proceedings on the floor of the Virginia Senate on Feb. 18.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Cosgrove, whose bill would allow police agencies to keep the names of their officers secret, watches the proceedings on the floor of the Virginia Senate on Feb. 18.

A bill that could dramatically limit what the public knows about police departments and who works for them is under consideration in the Virginia General Assembly.

The legislation would allow police agencies to keep the names of their officers secret, a change that alarms open-government advocates who say police departments already lack transparency.

The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. John Cosgrove of Chesapeake, who says he was inspired to take action after learning about a Texas newspaper that said it would publish names and home addresses of police officers. The bill passed the Senate last week by a 25-15 vote, and a House subcommittee is expected to consider it Thursday afternoon.

Cosgrove says the information could fall into nefarious hands.

"I don't care whether it's your radio station or a newspaper or the MS-13 folks," says Cosgrove, referring to a prominent gang. "Basically once that data is out there it's no longer manageable, and it's just open for everybody for not only the police officer but their family as well."

Home addresses of police officers are not available in Virginia under public records requests, so Cosgrove's bill would have no influence over that. But it would allow police agencies to withhold names of police officers in public records requests for any reason. That concerns Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, who says the police agencies should not operate in secret.

"The names of other government employees are available, and this does not allow personal information of police officers to be known to the public," says Ebbin. "All public servants names are out there now, and when you work for the government there's a certain amount of sunshine that needs to be involved."

Exemptions and more exemptions

Virginia was recently given a failing grade for public access to information by the Center for Public Integrity, and the law already has a wide range of exemptions for police agencies. Exemptions already exist for complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files, reports, witness statements and evidence. Even something as basic as an incident report for a burglary that happened next door is unavailable in Virginia, where police agencies tend to exercise their discretion to exempt information in all cases, regardless of what the case is about, regardless of whether the case is open or closed.

"What we have counseled the chiefs is that with anything like this, whenever you have an exemption in FOIA, it is not to be used as a blanket exemption," says Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. "It's to be used on a very judicious basis to ensure that you have a justification for not releasing certain information."

Open-government advocates worry that giving yet another exemption to police agencies would further erode a system that already lacks transparency. Megan Rhyne at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says withholding names of public employees could have unintended consequences for accountability and financial oversight.

"Under this bill, for instance, you wouldn't be able to attach a name to a spending decision," says Rhyne. "Reimbursements for use of a city credit card or who signed off on a particular purchase order or anything like that."

Security versus liberty

Supporters of Cosgrove's bill say allowing information about police officers to be part of the public record has consequences beyond open government or media scrutiny. Republican Sen. Dick Black of Loudoun County says the names could fall into the hands of terrorists. Black, who was labeled an enemy of the Islamic State by its magazine, Dabiq, says terrorist already have a history of publishing names of people to be targeted.

"ISIS did obtain the names of a hundred military families and they did publish them, and they published them," says Black. "And they published them so that their followers could go after them."

Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax County says any public official could be targeted, so why create a special exemption for one kind of pubic employee?

"Maybe you could target a member of the General Assembly," says Petersen. "Maybe you could target a member of the Washington Redskins. Maybe you could target a professor at VCU. I mean you can target a lot of people based on what you learn online. What are going to just scrub the information for all of these people?"

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