Connection readers know that we respect and appreciate our public safety professionals. Members of local police and fire and rescue departments are motivated by their deep commitment to serve and protect our local communities. We honor those with our coverage of valor awards, features on police efforts to curb drunk driving and distracted driving, and tragically sometimes a death in the line of duty.
While police earn and deserve a special consideration, police departments in Northern Virginia should let go of their relentless pursuit of secrecy. Police departments all over the country routinely allow access to police reports, incident reports and many other documents without harm, documents that police here refuse to allow the public to see.
The first paragraph of Virginia Freedom of Information Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1968, states that all public records "shall be presumed open." But the legislation includes an exception that allows police to withhold "complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files or reports, witness statements and evidence."
Police officials in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria have adopted what they call a "blanket" approach to using their exemption. That means they have decided to withhold any document they can without any analysis of whether they should. Police chiefs and prosecutors from across the commonwealth have spoken out against any effort to undermine their broad power of exemption.
Senate Bill 711, originally introduced in 2010 by state Sen. John Edwards (D-21) and up for discussion again this week, would limit the blanket withholding of information to ongoing investigations. This could allow for the public release of documents in closed cases such as the one conducted by the Arlington Police Department about the death of Hailu Brook. In December, 2008, Fairfax County police officers chased 19-year-old Hailu Brook across the county line into Arlington and shot him dead. Brook, a senior at Yorktown High School, had reportedly robbed a BB&T in McLean.
The autopsy report, one of the few documents his parents were able to obtain, shows that the teen was shot 20-25 times by three officers with large caliber handguns. Baffled by what happened to their son, the parents sought access to police reports and documents, but even now that the case is closed, their requests have been denied.
Police wield power unlike any other entity — the power to detain and question, the power to arrest, the power to respond with force when necessary, sometimes deadly force.
With that power, comes responsibility — the responsibility to operate openly and with transparency, the responsibility to make available the greatest possible amount of information, especially the responsibility to provide the public with a full picture of what happened when something goes wrong.
Somewhere along the way, police leaders in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax have gone astray in their control of information.