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House panel kills bill to allow police officers’ names to be kept private

February 26, 2016 | Virginia News

By GRAHAM MOOMAW | Richmond Times-Dispatch

A controversial bill that would have allowed police officers’ names to be kept secret was killed by a unanimous vote Thursday in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

The legislation, which was beginning to draw national attention as an audacious step to protect officers at a time of increased scrutiny on law enforcement, was defeated by a seven-member subcommittee that deals with open-records issues.

Supporters of the bill, Senate Bill 552, argued that officers’ names could be used by anyone to look up personal information on the Internet, such as a home address.

Del. Joseph R. Yost, R-Giles, said in the era of Facebook and Twitter, names are already public.

“I don’t see, in my mind, having an individual’s name out there as being a threat to safety of others,” said Yost, who made the motion to table the bill. “We all have our names out there in some way, shape or form.”

“It can even be the counselor for MS-13,” he said, referring to the infamous criminal gang. “We’ve got to think in those terms.”

Cosgrove and others said the ability to withhold names would be applied sparingly to protect undercover officers or officers subject to pending investigations by internal affairs.

“I know this is a pretty bold step,” Cosgrove said. “I will tell you that I feel the press has grossly mischaracterized this in their reporting.”

In a public hearing Thursday, several speakers told stories of FOIA being used to spot political patronage, wasteful spending and problem officers, which they argued would not be possible without the ability to match actions with names.

Representatives of various law enforcement agencies said they feared the wide release of officer names online.

“When you put the officers’ name out there on the Internet now, with the ability people have to find people, they’re going to find out where they live and they’re going to have the opportunity to kill them and do other bad things to their family,” said Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police.

Carroll also ticked off stories of officers being killed at their homes, but he ended each anecdote by saying it wasn’t clear how the assailants found the officer’s address.

Personal information such as phone numbers and home addresses is already exempt under the state’s FOIA law. Opponents of the bill pointed out that FOIA exemptions already exist to protect undercover officers and tactical plans.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the “ultimate employers” of law enforcement officers are the public.

“We cannot monitor them if we don’t know who they are,” Rhyne said.

Del. Richard L. Anderson, R-Prince William, called the bill “difficult” and suggested it be wrapped in to the ongoing, three-year FOIA study.

“I want to see this get a deeper and more fair hearing,” Anderson said. “Because our officers merit protection. Those who wish to defend this principle of openness in a constitutional republic, that is a valid concept too.”

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