Editorial Opinion: Another Step to Police Transparency

Editorial Opinion: Another Step to Police Transparency

Opening up records of “unattended deaths” to families.

Tune into Budget Hearings This Week

• Tuesday, April 4, 4 p.m., Public Hearing before Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; School Board presents budget to Board. Fairfax County Government Center, Boardroom, 12000 Government Center Pkwy., Fairfax.

• Wednesday, April 5, 1 p.m., Public Hearing before Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

• Thursday, April 6, 1 p.m., Public Hearing before Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

All meetings streamed live online and available to view on demand.

Residents can listen to any meeting live in the Board of Supervisors boardroom by calling 703-324-7700.

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."

As a result, many police departments around the Commonwealth, including Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, 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.

To its credit, the Fairfax County Police Department has committed to “release police reports with redactions rather than creating a summary document,” and the new policy is in progress.

During the 2017 session of the General Assembly, state Sen. Scott Surovell’s bill, SB1102, passed both the House and Senate without any votes in opposition. The bill would require police to release the records of investigations of deaths by suicide to the closest family member.

The bill summary: “Virginia Freedom of Information Act; completed unattended death investigations; mandatory disclosure. Requires that records of completed unattended death investigations be released to the parent or spouse of the decedent or, if there is no living parent or spouse, to the most immediate family member of the decedent.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposes to gut the bill by amending it to only require the police to provide a summary of the report.

Families deserve to have access to completed police reports about the death of a loved one. (This is also an issue for murder victims and other situations, but is not addressed by this bill.)

The General Assembly meets for its veto session Wednesday, April 5, and we urge every member who voted in favor of Surovell’s bill to vote to block the amendment.

We note that police departments do not have to withhold these reports; nothing in the current law prohibits their release. Police departments could choose the compassionate and transparent approach by releasing reports, redacting the names of witnesses and other information as reasonably necessary. This is what the FCPD is working towards.

— Mary Kimm