This is not Ferguson, and tanks do not roll down the streets of Northern Virginia driven by police officers pointing sniper rifles at residents.
But police departments here are engaged in serious and significant abuse of power. This is the perfect moment to do something about it.
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, whether the case is open or closed, whether they are about a “police-involved shooting” or information requested by a family about a homicide victim.
This isn’t about race; this is about abuse of power. This is about lack of accountability and denying the public access to information that must be made public.
Police shot and killed 46-year-old John Geer standing unarmed in the doorway of his home on Pebble Brook Court in Springfield on Aug. 29, 2013. Unlike in the case in Ferguson last week, the officer who shot him remains unnamed, and we have no official explanation of what happened or why.
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.
Other police-involved shootings include the November 2013 death of James Bryant, 28, a resident at the Eleanor Kennedy homeless shelter in Mount Vernon, who assaulted other residents at the shelter and then police when they arrived, wrestling away the baton of one police officer; David Masters, an unarmed man with mental illness who was shot and killed by police in 2009 on Route 1 in Mount Vernon; there are many other examples.
Even for family members of crime victims, documents are routinely withheld by police agencies. One example is the 2009 murder of 19-year-old Kossi Djossou, who was shot at his workplace in Alexandria. After the murder, the Djossou family tried to find out what had happened, but their repeated attempts to get documents in the cases were denied. "How can something happen to your son, and you’re never going to know the facts?" asked Geoffrey Josseau.
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, the power to use 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.
It’s time for a change.