Editorial: On Police Information and Secrecy

Editorial: On Police Information and Secrecy

Time for change in public access to police information.

The first meeting of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission will take place next Monday, March 23, and it comes with hope for real change.

Police could take one step that would signal that they are serious about regaining public trust.

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, dashboard video and many other sources of information without harm, all things 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 (and also in 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.

It is only because of legal action by the family of John Geer, shot dead by a Fairfax County police officer in the doorway to his own home in August 2013, and the resulting court order that we know details of what happened that day. And what we now know confirms that the information released by police was incomplete and misleading at best.

We’ve learned that we cannot trust the leadership at the Fairfax County Police Department to tell the truth voluntarily on these matters. (See Editorial: “Not the First or Only Time,” Connection, Feb. 11, 2015.)

Repeating what we have said in this space many times: 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.

Most Northern Virginia residents think very highly of their police. We are very safe here. People understand that sometimes mistakes happen, that sometimes force is needed, and that sometimes police will exercise deadly force. What they are unlikely to accept is secrecy that shrouds mistakes, and failure to take responsibility for explaining events of deadly force.

It’s clear that discretion about when to withhold information cannot be left up to the police department.

Mary Kimm is a member of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission; news coverage of police issues will continue to be the responsibility of reporters at the Connection.