by Atif Qarni
The Virginia State Senate recently passed a bill which is being coined as “the secret police” bill. This legislation will likely pass the House of Delegates soon and will be sent to Governor McAuliffe. If signed into law, FOIA requests will not be granted to gain access to records of police officers at state and local levels, including any law enforcement who is responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the enforcement of penal, traffic, or highway laws of the Commonwealth.
The problem with this bill is that taxpayers will not be able to hold law enforcement agents accountable for any misconduct or wrongdoing while serving in their official capacities. This legislation takes a huge step backwards in providing transparency into taxpayer funded positions and any potential abuse of power.
The Virginia State Senate passed this bill 25-15, with all Republican Senators voted for it, along with four Democrats. I will not make this a partisan issue, but instead will focus on the potential negative impact this bill can have on our citizenry.
Our police officers put their lives at risk to serve and defend. They should be respected and protected. Having said that, law enforcement divisions do provide officers working narcotics or undercover with many protections. To my knowledge, law enforcement statistics do not show a rising rate of violence against police officers in the Commonwealth. In fact, violent acts against police officers nationwide have declined in the last few years, with 2015 seeing among the lowest number of violent acts against police officers in a quarter century.
So why do we need the “secret police” bill? This legislation was pushed by police unions, and compelling testimony from police officers was provided. As a special interest group, of course it is their right to advocate for issues that are important to their members. Absent from these proceedings, however, were organizations advocating for civil liberties, such as the NAACP or ACLU.
I realize that elected officials in Virginia have to review hundreds of bills in a short period of time, and that they do so with very limited staff and other resources. I also realize that when counterarguments are not provided, a bill is deemed “noncontroversial,” and therefore it becomes easier for legislators to pass it. Nevertheless, sound judgement has to be displayed in cases like this, because the fine print does actually matter.
This bill, if it is signed into law, will create a system like Chicago. The majority of police officers, like many public servants, are decent, hardworking professionals. However, as in any workplace, there will always be a few who will bend the rules. Those individuals should be held accountable for their actions. Yet if this bill is enacted, it will protect the identities of these bad actors and create a “cone of silence” that further erodes the trust that exists between law enforcement and the people they are sworn to protect.
If a police officer is officially written up for misconduct, police departments will file this report in the individual’s personnel record. If this bill becomes law, these reports become sealed and inaccessible to the public, even if a FOIA request is made. If multiple reports of misconduct exist in a police officer’s personnel file, there will be little to no repercussion for Departments who have failed to take appropriate action to discipline the employee, as these files will be essentially sealed from the public.
Although there is no evidence of a rising rate of violent acts against police officers in the Commonwealth, there IS evidence indicating that people of color are being unfairly targeted, mistreated and disproportionately penalized by law enforcement officials. In Virginia, we cannot afford to create a situation where law enforcement and minority communities are fearful or suspicious of one another.
I have served on panels and participated in meetings with police officers from Fairfax County, Prince William County and Manassas City. One important goal has been to proactively build relations with the communities of color that the police serve. For example, the Security Resident Officer that is assigned to the middle school where I work has been a good ambassador and role model for the student population, which is predominantly African American and Latino. We need to continue to take proactive approaches to bring minority communities and law enforcement communities closer together, not further apart.
Friends in the General Assembly tell me that it is inevitable that this bill will pass the House. The only way that we can stop this bill, then, is by appealing to the Governor to veto it when it reaches his desk. I urge people reading this post to to do that. Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to work across party lines to get meaningful legislation passed have been admirable. However, this bill could set a dangerous precedent for further obfuscation of law enforcement activities and potentially jeopardize the integrity of our law enforcement system as a whole. It should not be signed into law.