Commentary:Blame Local Governance for Police Secrecy

Commentary:Blame Local Governance for Police Secrecy

Police shootings where civilians are killed (or wounded) are assumed to occur while protecting the public-at-large, as well as the officer(s) involved. When the public seeks to learn the circumstances of such shootings, police officials lock up the files and send out their spokesperson to say they can reveal nothing, forever.

From the Alexandria City Charter

Sec. 2.01 General grant of powers.

“The city shall have and may exercise all powers... [conferred or not otherwise withheld] which in the opinion of the council are necessary or desirable to promote the general welfare of the city and the safety ... of its inhabitants....”

Sec. 3.04 Powers.

“All powers of the city as granted in chapter 2 of this charter and the determination of all matters of policy shall be vested in the council ....”

“(d) Inquire into the conduct of any office, department or agency of the city and make investigation as to municipal affairs.”

“(e) ... There are hereby created the departments of ... police ..., the heads of which shall be appointed by the city manager ... The council by ordinance may assign duties or functions to the ... departments ... created by this charter ....”

Sec. 3.17 Power of investigation.

“The council shall have the power to investigate any ... departments ... and any officer or employee of the city.”

Sec. 4.03 Powers of appointment and removal.

“The city manager shall appoint ... and remove ... the heads of all departments ....”

Sec. 4.04 Council and council members not to interfere in appointments or removals or direction of personnel.

“... Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative services solely through the city manager, and neither the council nor any member thereof shall give orders either publicly or privately to any subordinate of the city manager ....”

Sec. 4.06 Directors of departments.

“There shall be a single executive head of each department who ... shall have direction and control of his department, subject to supervision of the city manager ....”

Any killing is a terrible thing. Police killings are worse. Officials know they cannot escape being accused by someone of having done something wrong, so they assume a permanent defensive crouch. The easy way out is to say nothing and reveal nothing. While shortsighted, that practice and policy is understandable.

However, refusing to explain what happened erodes public trust in those sworn to “serve and protect.” It also obscures the fact that law enforcement officers in Northern Virginia are skilled professionals who, almost without exception, act properly in highly-charged circumstances. The many instances of police shootings over recent years prove beyond question that the police will not open their investigative files and their spokespersons will not tell the public what happened, until forced.

Local media, particularly this newspaper, and pockets of the citizenry loudly criticize the police for the blanket of secrecy. Yet, the ballet of evasion goes on year after year, shooting after shooting, killing after killing. Clearly, past criticism has failed. Perhaps, the reason is that all the harping has been misdirected.

Who do the police answer to? Who has the authority to order the police to change policies of secrecy into those of public disclosure?

The answer is the elected legislative body in each local jurisdiction, be it called City Council, County Board or Board of Supervisors. The situation of the City of Alexandria serves as exemplar for adjacent cities and counties. See extracts from the City Charter in the accompanying fact-box.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to the city and to all the city’s public records. Basically, for citizens of the Commonwealth, “all public records shall be available for inspection and copying upon request,” the FOIA “shall be liberally construed” and any “exemption shall be narrowly construed.” There are numerous exemptions to that rule in the statute, but exercising

them must be specific. Each grouping of records excluded from disclosure is prefaced by this phrase, or words similar to it:

“The following records are excluded from the provisions of this chapter [the FOIA], but may be disclosed by the custodian, in his discretion, except where such disclosure is prohibited by law.”

Regardless of whether records relating to police shootings are considered “personnel records” or “criminal records,” every pertinent section of the FOIA includes this discretionary power to release.

With all fundamental authority in Alexandria vested in the City Council, with the City Manager being subordinate to the council, and with the police chief being subordinate to both council and manager, public unveiling of records relating to police shootings requires only action by the council. Moreover, the council’s action can be designed not only to avoid conflict with the FOIA, but to further the purposes of that law.

For example, the council could take the following action, certainly in the form of an ordinance and possibly as a policy directive addressed to the city manager:

First, declare that the essential objectives of the FOIA are embraced and applicable to all city records, that the terms of the law are to be liberally construed and that the exclusions under the law are to be narrowly construed.

Second, declare that explicit statutory allowance for disclosure-by-discretion is to be exercised “liberally” and not “narrowly” whenever requested records fall within a group listed as excluded in the FOIA.

Third, require that all records responsive to a request concerning police shootings shall be placed before the city manager in duplicate, one set without

any redactions and the other set showing each redaction claimed to be necessary by the police chief, with the basis for each such claim presented in a separate memorandum.

Fourth, direct that the city manager shall decide and utter the final decision on the request for records in the appropriate format prescribed by the FOIA, but only after consulting the city attorney as to each claim for redaction and after applying the principles in “First” and “Second” above.

Journalists and the public should cease wasting time raking police departments and officials over the coals for hiding records related to police shootings, especially killings. Continued efforts in that direction will be as futile in the future as they have been in the past. The more promising tack is a direct and explicit demand for change handed to the local legislative body, be it council or board. Individual members of those bodies are elected. Candidates for office hope to gain office from the electorate. A member or candidate refusing to do what voter-residents demand is at risk of he or she being denied the office held or sought. Politicians are responsive to the voices of the multitude — when the multitude is capable of voting.