Virginia considers keeping police officer names secret

AP News
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Posted: Feb 18, 2016 7:30 PM
Virginia considers keeping police officer names secret

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Should the government be allowed to keep the names of police officers secret from the news media and public?

A bill moving forward in Virginia would do that, and it's drawing sharp criticism from open records advocates who say the names are an important tool in keeping watch over whether police departments are hiring problem officers with taxpayer money. Supporters say handing over the lists of names would put officers and deputies in danger at a time of what they describe as growing contempt toward law enforcement.

"It used to be that there was a healthy respect for law enforcement," said Republican Sen. John Cosgrove, the bill's sponsor. "Now they've become targets of opportunity."

While officers have been threatened, particularly in high-profile cases, opponents call the bill an extreme reaction to an unlikely scenario.

The bill was introduced in response to a recent court ruling directing the state to turn over the names and employment dates of thousands of law enforcement officials to The Virginian-Pilot. The paper has said it's seeking to determine whether problem officers who leave a department land a job at another agency.

The measure would have broad implications, critics suggested, and perhaps even allow officers to refuse to tell someone their name during a traffic stop. Cosgrove dismissed that idea and said he would work with opponents to tailor the bill, if necessary. The bill would exempt the names of law enforcement officials from Freedom of Information Act requests, and also shield training records, which detail the courses an officer completed and how they performed.

"You're getting paid by the public. You don't get to do that in secret," said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Dan Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said he's unaware of another state with a law of this scope.

A bill before New Jersey lawmakers would allow officials to withhold the names of state police detectives. West Virginia lawmakers are considering a measure that shields officers' and their families' contact information from the public. And several states have or are examining laws aimed at preventing the release of the names of officers involved in shootings.

If the law passes, there may be little recourse to challenging the law in court because the state can essentially make whatever rules it wants to when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act, said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, which opposes the bill.

Cosgrove said he believed that rank-and-file officers would let the public know if nepotism or corruption was occurring in a department. He stressed that his bill wouldn't prevent localities from turning over police officers' names if they so choose.

The bill passed Virginia's GOP-controlled Senate by a 25-15 vote this month, and still needs to get through the House of Delegates, where Republicans also hold the majority. It's being backed by all of the major law enforcement associations, including the Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Sheriffs' Association.

John Jones, executive director of the sheriffs' group, said he believes that the concerns about the bill are unfounded.

"With social media and all the databases, once you get the name and a little bit more information ... you can pretty much get a picture of who they are," Jones said. "And with everything going on with law enforcement... it's an officer safety issue."

A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe would not say whether the governor would sign the measure. But the Democrat has sided with law enforcement over civil liberties advocates in the past, such as when he vetoed a bill last year that sought to limit how long officials can hold onto information collected from license plate readers.

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Associated Press reporters Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Jonathan Mattise in Charleston, West Virginia and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this story.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the court mandated only the release of current, not former, law enforcement officials. The state provided the names of former officials to the newspaper even though it wasn't ordered by the court.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-riche