A state House subcommittee voted unanimously Thursday evening to kill a bill that would have allowed names of all police officers and deputies in the state to be kept secret.
The bill, SB552, by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, passed the state Senate 25-15, generating national attention because it would have made Virginia the first state to pass such a law, according to open government experts.
Cosgrove and representatives of several police associations said the bill was necessary to protect the safety of police officers.
Open government advocates and the Virginia Press Association argued that the public has a right to know the names of employees they pay and said transparency is important in policing.
Cosgrove told the subcommittee, led by Republican Del. Jim LeMunyon of Northern Virginia, that he filed the bill in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Virginian-Pilot to obtain the names and employment history of police officers in Virginia. The newspaper is examining whether officers who got into trouble later got jobs at other departments.
The Department of Criminal Justice Services agreed to provide the names but then refused. So the Pilot sued the state and won when a judge ruled the state violated its end of the agreement, and the names were released to the newspaper.
Cosgrove and bill supporters said it was necessary to protect the safety of police and their families. The bill would make the names of officers exempt from mandatory disclosure under the state’s FOIA and make the names a personnel record.
It’s unclear how the bill would have been implemented. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration is at odds with open government experts on personnel records, arguing that they cannot be released without permission of the employee.
“Our law enforcement officers are in jeopardy, more than I think they ever have been,” Cosgrove said.
“I know this is a pretty bold step, and I will tell you that I feel the press has grossly mischaracterized this in their reporting.”
Subcommittee members said they supported police but needed to balance the importance of the public knowing the names of officers.
“I don’t see in my mind having an individual’s name out there as being a threat to safety of others,” said Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg. “All of our information is already out there in some way, shape or form.”
Del. Richard Anderson, R-Prince William County, made a motion that the bill be studied by the state’s FOIA Advisory Council, which is engaged in a three-year study of the act. But Yost made a motion to kill the bill, which passed unanimously by voice vote.
LeMunyon said the issues raised could certainly be studied by the FOIA council as it looks at security issues this year.
Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, was among association representatives in favor of the bill. She said the bill “does not create secret police” and would simply allow police to keep names secret if they choose. She said police chiefs know it’s in the public’s best interest to know who officers are. “It’s a foundation, it’s a building block, of community policing,” she said.
But she and Cosgrove cited a situation in Texas in which a newspaper threatened to publish the names and addresses of all police officers in San Antonio.
“Our law enforcement officers have been specifically singled out for retaliation and elimination by gangs and terrorist groups,” she said.
Craig Merritt, an attorney for the Virginia Press Association, was among the bill’s opponents and said police associations were overstating the reasons for the bill. He said there was no case in which someone used FOIA or public records to find and target a police officer – in fact, he said, doing so would leave a record.
What the bill would do, he said, is take away the public’s ability to associate the names of law enforcement officers with a salary and position.
“This is a check on patronage abuses. It’s a check on favoritism. It’s a check on discrimination against people who are in protected classes. It’s a check against improper moonlighting on taxpayers’ dollars. It’s a way to put names with compensation and salary,” he said.
And he said existing law protects the identities of undercover officers.
Pilot reporter Gary Harki told the subcommittee he requested officers’ names to see whether “bad actors” had moved from one department to another. The paper agreed to use the data for research and not publish it, he said.
“It helps me try and see and track officer movement,” he said.