Push to open police records to public inspection continues in Virginia

Push to open police records to public inspection continues in Virginia
A police car in Richmond, Va. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Police in Virginia almost never release case files and body camera footage, even long after their investigations have concluded.

A bill aimed at changing that failed during the special legislative session, which concluded last week. But lawmakers are already working to revise the legislation in response to concerns raised by police about graphic crime scene photos and victim privacy.

“This is really about trying to achieve justice,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, telling members of the Virginia Freedom of Information Council on Wednesday that current law allowing police to indefinitely withhold records hampers news reporting, leaves crime victims in the dark and limits efforts to investigate and overturn wrongful convictions.

In most states and at the federal level, such records are open and accessible to the public with a handful of exceptions, according to the Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions and argues access to a defendant’s full case files is essential to that work. Another 14 states presume those records aren’t public.

And four, including Virginia, leave the decision to disclose records to the individual law enforcement agencies that possess them.

The broad exemption, which police can apply to most records in their possession, gives local and state departments the ability to shield all but the most basic information about how they respond to and investigate crimes from public disclosure. And as body cameras have proliferated, it’s also been routinely used to block the release of the footage they generate, including in cases where they’re not part of an ongoing investigation and never were.

During the special legislative session, which was largely devoted to issues of police reform, Hurst argued that increasing transparency would improve trust in police departments and give recourse to people who believe they’re the victims of police misconduct.

As an example, he invoked the case of Kionte Spencer, who a Roanoke County police officer fatally shot in 2016 and whose family still hasn’t been allowed to see the full dashcam video capturing the encounter — something members of the community continue to demand.

“The reason why we need to be able to have these records disclosed to the public or to families or interested parties is that often times these are people who aren’t able to get any answers, much less justice for a crime that has been committed against a loved one,” Hurst told lawmakers in August as the bill made its way through the General Assembly.

The Innocence Project offered a similar argument, writing to lawmakers that that, in addition to aiding their investigations into wrongful convictions, the bill would ensure fair investigations into police killings.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.