Virginia State Police won’t release job records of ex-trooper who killed 3 in California
Agency says ‘human error’ caused prior mental health incident to be missed in hiring process
Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
Virginia State Police acknowledged “human error” caused them to miss a violent incident in the past of a former state trooper who killed three people in California last month, but the agency is refusing to release 247 pages of personnel records that could shed more light on his time as a state employee.
The Virginia Mercury filed a public records request for all documents related to State Police administrative investigations and background checks of former trooper Austin Lee Edwards, whom authorities say “catfished” a 15-year-old California girl online before traveling there and killing three members of her family.
Edwards’ 15-month stint as a State Police trooper ended Oct. 28, when he left his state job to join the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Southwest Virginia. According to California authorities, Edwards killed the girl’s mother and grandparents on Nov. 25 and tried to kidnap her before dying by suicide during a shootout with police.
State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency was choosing to “exercise its statutory discretion” to keep the employment records confidential. Asked if the agency could explain that choice given the significant public interest in the murders Edwards committed and his background as a police officer in Virginia, Geller said the state’s transparency laws don’t require the agency to comment further.
Edwards’ behavior as a State Police officer never triggered any internal investigations, according to the agency, and there was no potentially troubling information in his background that the agency would have been legally required to pass along to his new law enforcement employer in Washington County. Under Virginia law, the State Police would have had to tell the county sheriff’s office about any alleged criminal activity, excessive force or other misconduct in Edwards’ law enforcement background.
However, State Police say their own hiring process was flawed because they were unaware that a court ordered Edwards to be hospitalized for a mental health episode in 2016, years before he became a state trooper, in which he threatened to kill himself and his father, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In a news release Wednesday night, State Police said “human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process.” The hiring process, the agency said, includes a background check “that requires passage of written, psychological and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph.”
“Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward,” the agency said. “The department is also proactively auditing existing personnel records and practices.”
The agency said it is conducting a “forensic review” of Edwards’ state-issued laptop and cell phone.
Geller made clear the agency would not be releasing any personnel information related to Edwards, including his monthly job performance evaluations.
“The materials you are seeking constitute personnel information of this agency concerning identifiable individuals,” Geller said, pointing to a longstanding exemption in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that allows state and local governments to shield a wide array of records dealing with the hiring, firing and performance of public employees.
However, the Supreme Court of Virginia recently narrowed the exemption in an October opinion that concluded government agencies don’t have a blanket right to shield all personnel records. Instead, the court found, the exemption only applies to truly private information, defined as anything that, if disclosed, would appear to be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” to a reasonable person.
Federal FOIA guidance says that “after death, a person no longer possesses privacy rights.” But that interpretation doesn’t bind state agencies or state courts.
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