RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Lawmakers want to keep certain police records from the public. If passed, the bill would partially reverse a new state policy aimed at increasing transparency and accountability.
Before bipartisan reform was approved last year by the General Assembly, law enforcement agencies were not required to disclose files from closed investigations and they often refused to release them.
In the final days of the 2022 session, a bill to roll back the rare expansion of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is being negotiated behind closed doors after different versions passed in the House and Senate.
The concerns of crime victims and their loved ones are behind the reversal, according to lawmakers in support of the proposed changes.
Gil Harrington is among the family members at the forefront of the push. Harrington’s daughter Morgan, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student, was abducted and murdered in 2009 after a concert in Charlottesville.
Harrington said, since the new law took effect, there has been an uptick in requests to release details of the case. She fears the family’s privacy will be breached and it will force them to relive painful memories.
“The cases may be closed but our grief is an ongoing process and having the band aid ripped off the wound again and again and again is not conducive to healing,” Harrington said.
Virginia Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Megan Rhyne said current law already prohibits the release of victim photos. She said officers can also refuse to share records that would identify a confidential source, reveal police tactics, interfere with another investigation, subject someone to physical harm or represent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Rhyne is not surprised the policy is being revisited but she fears the bill in its current form would make it difficult to hold officers accountable.
“We are concerned with being able to monitor the work of the police. You need to be able to know things like were victims, witnesses and suspects treated fairly,” Rhyne said.
For example, a recent investigation found 146 officers have been decertified as of mid-January for misconduct, which means they’re currently not allowed to work for law enforcement agencies in Virginia.
Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the bill could prevent the press from learning more about cases those officers handled or controversial shootings involving police.
“There is no question we need to show some sensitivity to the victims,” Surovell said. “But the bill as drafted just cuts a little bit too broadly and I think we need to look at it and try to narrow it down a bit before we pass it on to the governor.”
Jason Nixon helped craft the 2021 law that expanded access to some police records. Nixon was frustrated by unanswered questions surrounding the death of his wife Kate, one of a dozen people killed in the 2019 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building. He accused police of withholding key information in the aftermath.
“Why are they all of a sudden, with a knee-jerk reaction, trying to change the law on us and take away the rights from the media and other loved ones looking for this information,” Nixon said.
The bill up for debate would not entirely repeal existing law because it maintains access to some records for victims, immediate family and certain lawyers.
However, Nixon said that leaves out key stakeholders who have a legitimate interest in this information, including unmarried couples.
“I fought hard for this law,” Nixon said. “I feel like all of my efforts just went in the trash can.”