Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Secret Police of Northern Virginia

I know this sort of thing happens in banana republics and eastern bloc countries, but how in the world can secretive police agencies be allowed to exist in the good old USA?

Radley Balko writes at Reason about three Northern Virginia police departments - Fairfax County, Arlington, and Alexandria - that deny open records request by default and operate is such an opaque manner that you'd think they were taking lessons from the KGB.

Balko writes:

Michael Pope, a reporter who covers Northern Virginia for the Connection Newspapers chain and for the Washington, D.C., NPR affiliate WAMU, filed a series of open records requests with the Faifax Police Department related to the Masters shooting. All were denied. Last month, Pope asked Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings why her department won't at least release the incident report on Master's death, given concerns raised about the shooting. "Let us hear that concern," Jennings shot back. "We are not hearing it from anybody except the media, except individual reporters."

That's an astounding answer. "Except the media?" That's exactly who you would expect to file most open records requests. When asked why her department won't even release even the name of the officer who shot Masters, Jennings got more obtuse. "What does the name of an officer give the public in terms of information and disclosure?" Jennings asked in reply, presumably rhetorically. "I'd be curious to know why they want the name of an officer."

Cover-ups by law enforcement agencies are nothing new. Neither are officers who abuse their sworn duties, lie under oath, or otherwise besmirch the badge. What's amazing is the utter dearth of concern demonstrated by elected officials within the three jurisdictions.

Don't look to elected officials to correct any of this, either. "I am in the corner of trusting our police department," Arlington County Board member Barbara Favola told Pope. "If they push back I am not going to override them, and I don’t think I could get three votes on the board to override them either."

Really? Then not only is there a transparency problem, but there's an oversight problem too. How dare officials so blatantly disregard public requests for information when it's common (and expected) practice elsewhere?


And then there's Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney Randolph Sengel, who fired off an indignant letter to the editor in response to Pope's article. Calling Pope's well-reported piece a "rant" that was "thinly disguised as a news story," Sengel wrote that "Law enforcement investigations and prosecutions are not carried out for the primary purpose of providing fodder for his paper." Mocking the media's role as a watchdog for government officials, Sengel added, "The sacred 'right of the public to know' is still (barely) governed by standards of reasonableness and civility," as if those two adjectives were incompatible with a journalist inquiring about the details of a govenrment agent's fatal shooting of an unarmed man.

The entire column is worth a read. Think it can't happen in America?

Think again.

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