Lawmaker wants police identities kept out of public records

A bill making its way through the state legislature in Virginia could do serious damage to efforts to hold police officers who abuse their authority accountable to the public.

The proposal, introduced by state Republican Sen. John Cosgrove would allow law enforcement agencies in Virginia to withhold the names, positions, job classifications, or any other “personal identifying information” on officers from documents requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act laws.

The measure, which Cosgrove is promoting as an officer safety bill, would be the first of its kind in the nation.

It would also shield special agents with Alcoholic Beverage Control, Virginia Marine Police, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officers, Virginia Lotto investigators, Department of Conservation and Recreation officers, motor vehicles enforcement officials and “animal protection police officers” from public scrutiny.

According to The Virginia Pilot, Cosgrove hammered out the details of his legislation with the help of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

The bill was conceived in response to the same newspaper’s effort to create a database to “track officer movement from department to department” and examine “how often officers who got in trouble were able to find other jobs in law enforcement.”

“I think this FOIA exemption is probably needed just because we want to make sure their safety is assured [and] their families are not put at risk just because their information as law enforcement officers is available,” Cosgrove said.

Sen. Bill DeSteph, another Virginia lawmaker in support of the legislation, went a step further in declaring a need to gut the state’s open records laws. He told reporters: “What’s happened in the last 30 years is ISIS terrorism and targeting of our police officers and individuals.”

That doesn’t make much sense.

A more likely threat to some of the officers is that The Virginia Pilot is on to something and the data would reveal that authorities fired for corruption and abuse of power are still working as enforcers in other government agencies throughout the state.

In other words, Cosgrove’s bill isn’t about officer safety—it’s about allowing officers to maintain their blue wall of silence without the intrusion of pesky watchdog groups and journalists finding patterns of misconduct.

But as The Washington Post’s Randy Balko noted in a recent post about the bill, the lawmakers do so to the detriment of public safety: “Virginia’s state Senate thinks the public should be forbidden from knowing the names of the public servants entrusted with the power to detain, arrest and kill.”

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