Sounding a warning over proposed legislation that would bar the public from learning the identity of persons employed as law enforcement officers, The Rutherford Institute is cautioning the Virginia General Assembly against taking an unprecedented and unjustified step toward the creation of unaccountable secret police forces. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill No. 552, would classify the names of all police officers as “personnel records,” and exempt them from mandatory disclosure under Virginia’s freedom of information law.
“American citizens have a right to know when government agencies and government officials have engaged in wrongdoing,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Whether those individuals occupy a public office or are employed by a law enforcement agency is immaterial. If a government employee has been charged with misconduct, it is the right of the taxpayer to know both the name of the individual and the charge against them.’”
At a time when Americans all across the country are clamoring for increased transparency and accountability of police departments and officers in the wake of police shootings of unarmed individuals and subsequent agency cover-ups, the Virginia Senate has approved legislation, Senate Bill 552, that proposes to change Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirement that governments disclose the identity of their employees and other employment-related information of the bodies’ officers and employees by prohibiting the public’s access to the “names and training records of law-enforcement officers.” As Rutherford Institute attorneys point out, the scope of the information that would no longer be accessible under SB 552 is staggering, given that “law-enforcement officer” is defined in the Virginia Code as any full-time or part-time employee of a police department or sheriff's office which is a part of or administered by the Commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof” as well as a host of other officers of state and local departments with law enforcement responsibility.
The Rutherford Institute’s letter to the General Assembly outlines its concerns with the proposed legislation, notably that if adopted, SB 552 will undermine public trust in government agencies, create an unaccountable secret police force, and do away with critical legal remedies available to victims of police misconduct. As Whitehead notes, “Efforts to circumvent greater government transparency which, in the process, potentially shields government wrongdoing will only weaken that which makes our system of government strong: a system of checks and balances, public accountability, and government agencies and employees that are fully cognizant of the fact that they serve the taxpayers.” Having already been approved by the Virginia Senate, the bill is scheduled for a hearing before a subcommittee of the House General Laws committee, chaired by Del. James LeMunyon (R-Fairfax). If passed, the bill would go before the entire committee, then possibly sent out to the entire House of Delegates.
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