House members pledge allegiance to the flag as the Virginia House of Delegates begins a special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Pool)
If open-government advocates have their way in Richmond, relatives of crime victims and the news media may finally learn more details about a host of violent incidents – many that are several years old and votes of the State Parole Board will be pulled into the light of day.
It’s way overdue. When it comes to the public’s right to know, the commonwealth ranks citizens below government and businesses.
This dismissive practice has been a pet peeve of mine since I landed in Virginia 23 years ago. Other states don’t treat their residents with such scorn.
Too often, government officials default to a stance where they’ll only release information that they’re forced to by law. Whenever discretion is an option, they’ll almost always use protections in the state’s loophole-ridden Freedom of Information Act to keep details secret.
“This is our policy” to omit info is a typical response I’ve gotten from agencies when I’ve sought more facts, usually following a sparse police news release.
For example, even when a suspect has been arrested, police departments typically won’t identify injured victims. Want to know the possible motive – including whether the victim and suspect knew each other, possibly reducing the fear of people who live near the crime scene?
This is maddening. Some crimes can be decades in the past, yet departments deny requests to open up files – simply because they can.
The (Newport News) Daily Press reported HB5090, sponsored by Del. Christ Hurst, would mandate that criminal investigative files be made public when a court case is over, or at least three have years passed since police and prosecutors declined to pursue charges. The Montgomery Democrat’s legislation has passed two House committees during the General Assembly’s special session.
The newspaper article included a horrific case I wrote many columns about: the accidental crushing death of a homeless man, Michael Knockett, by a city garbage truck at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in 2010. Investigators ruled the death accidental, but it still cited an exemption to deny access to the 911 calls and other details.
(Not surprisingly, Knockett’s family members eventually sued the workers involved in the death. I interviewed his relatives and city officials over the course of the lawsuit, and spent time in the courtroom.)
I apologize to longtime readers of my columns if they’ve heard my rant before. It’s just that state statutes always force residents – and journalists – to jump over hurdles to find out what’s really happening in Virginia. The attitude reveals contempt toward taxpayers and others.
Citizens are treated like stepchildren, not good enough to know what public officials, businesspeople and the “good old boys” are hashing out.
Fighting such practices is one reason groups like the Virginia Coalition for Open Government support the legislation. “We think it’s part of an overall need for government accountability,” Megan Rhyne, the coalition’s executive director, told me this week.
When investigative records are closed forever, she added, citizens lose an important part of that oversight.
Part of the problem is the state’s FOIA is chock full of exemptions and designed to keep interested citizens – and journalists working on their behalf – from getting to the bottom of things. More than 175 records and meeting exemptions are part of the law.
Personnel exemptions, for example, make it difficult to know the backgrounds and work records of government employees.
Things have gotten so ridiculous that legislation enacted a few years ago prevents law enforcement officials from naming juveniles who die from any crime without the family’s consent.
I understand family members might be upset and decline to speak with reporters. But this law hinders police agencies from being the go-to source on issues of obvious public concern. Reporters can learn the names from social media and smartphones, but it’s a risk to rely on that information.
State regulations might be swinging back, slightly, to the side of openness. Even though police organizations are fighting Hurst’s bill, it has a shot at becoming law.
Meanwhile, a Senate-passed bill by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem, makes individual votes of the state Parole Board public. The move followed a recent report by the state’s Inspector General that the board violated state law and its own procedures in the parole process of a man convicted of killing a police officer.
“Virginians should know who is making these critical public safety and individual liberty decisions,” Suetterlein said.
Both bills would go a long way, if approved, to recalibrating the rights of Virginians in getting information. They’re a major improvement over current practices.
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