(Photo courtesy Virginia State Police)
A Virginia man drove the width of the United States, kidnapped a 15-year-old girl, shot her mother and grandparents dead in cold blood, torched their home and then killed himself in a shootout with California police. The gun he used came with the badge he wore back in Virginia.
So many questions. And to date, not enough answers.
Cops are vested with extraordinary legal authority over us in enforcing society’s laws, up to and including the taking of lives if their training and judgment tells them it’s necessary.
There’s rigorous testing, personal vetting and physical and mental training required before they wear the blue. Hopefully, that process is careful and thorough and only the best, most fit make it through. But then there was Austin Lee Edwards.
Edwards, 28, was a trooper for nearly a year and a half before he left the Virginia State Police in late October for a sheriff’s deputy job in Washington County near Bristol. He wasn’t on that job a month before he drove to Riverside, California, and sought out the child he had met online pretending to be someone else – a despicable practice known as “catfishing.” The carnage in his wake has generated sensational headlines worldwide.
When the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw filed a public records request with VSP for administrative documents and background checks on Edwards, the agency chose to “exercise its statutory discretion” and hide the documents from taxpayer view. Pressed for a reason for withholding information about Edwards, he was told that under state law, the agency isn’t required to comment further.
The VSP will only concede the obvious: that “human error” is to blame for the agency missing an incident in Edwards’s not-too-distant past during his hiring process. The agency said that no red flags emerged during his pre-employment background checks.
The Los Angeles Times, however, revealed that the incident referenced was a 2016 mental health crisis in which Edwards threatened to kill his father and was ordered hospitalized by a court. WTVR-TV in Richmond reported last week that Edwards revealed during a pre-employment interview that he had checked himself into a mental health facility that same year. On Thursday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked the Office of the State Inspector General to investigate Edwards’ hiring.
Stonewalling something like this is short-sighted and futile because of the likelihood that those details will be pried loose, if not by unhappy political leaders then in the discovery process of a wrongful death lawsuit. Even if the case doesn’t go to trial, such explosive material has been known to find the hands of enterprising journalists.
State law doesn’t require that the records of the individual in question be withheld. That was a choice. And it’s a choice that only serves to undermine the trust and confidence in law enforcement that is essential for the police to effectively do their jobs.
This columnist is not anti-police. I’ve known people at all levels of law enforcement and, for the most part, they’re dedicated professionals who do their jobs for low pay and at high risk because they’ve felt a call to serve. Some of the most genuine friends I have wear or wore the badge and I have chronicled the good work of many of them in my reporting. Edwards’ case, however, underscores that, like all of society, there are bad actors in their midst.
Law enforcement as an institution has work to do when it comes to public accountability, and it’s not just a passing political moment.
Things came to a head in America after the broad-daylight murder of George Floyd by police officers on a Minneapolis street in May 2020. A tempestuous summer of nationwide protests over deaths of Black people at the hands of police, and arrests and incarceration rates for people of color far greater than their share of the population, drove new laws mandating greater transparency by law enforcement agencies. It led to the creation of citizen review boards and requirements that police report and sometimes publish information on police use-of-force incidents.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 26 states have enacted law enforcement data collection and transparency laws since May of 2020, including seven – Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, Washington and Wisconsin — that mandate publicly accessible databases of use-of-force information. Others post reports using aggregated data on use of force by officers on patrol.
Virginia began collecting data in July 2020 under the state’s Community Policing Act. Those data show that out of more than 2 million traffic stops since then, 31% of those included Black people, who are only 20% of Virginia’s population, compared to 63% of stops that included White people, who are 68% of the state’s residents in the 2020 census. The 2020 law also banned the police use of racial profiling in deciding which drivers to pull over.
That doesn’t sit well with some policymakers. As of last week, there was already one Republican bill introduced in the House to repeal the Community Policing Act.
Gathering data on traffic stops, however, touches just one facet of law-enforcement answerability. Departments often go mute when their own are implicated in wrongdoing, and it often takes unrelenting public pressure to get a fuller accounting.
Last summer, Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith called a press conference to make the fantastical claim that his department had discovered and disrupted a plot to carry out a mass shooting at Byrd Park in the city during July 4th festivities. Two days earlier, an assault-style rifle was used to kill six people and injure 30 who watched an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, so Smith’s tale had global resonance.
Challenged repeatedly by journalists to provide evidence to buttress his claim, Smith resisted. As his yarn began to unravel, he bristled, insisting that his conclusion, based on his experience, was right and suggesting that the media were trying to impugn his officers, though they bore no role in Smith’s fiction. Already on thin ice and with his story discredited, he resigned last month and the record was belatedly set straight.
Smith’s folly is trivial alongside the murderous depravity of Edwards. Here was a walking time bomb who left red-flag clues to his psychological instability, and it staggers the mind as to how they could be overlooked. He desecrated the oath he swore, right down to firing his service weapon at unarmed people and fellow officers before he turned it on himself and committed the last of his life’s many cowardly acts.
So, VSP, if this harsh assessment looks bad and smells bad, too bad. If we’re off base, release Edwards’s records and prove us wrong.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.