In the United States, the Fourth Estate, also known as the Fourth Power or the fourth branch of government, has always been a popular label for the media’s role in a free society. But in the state of Virginia, legislators want to remove that power from the press by shielding police officers from public scrutiny.
Senate Bill 552, which has already been approved by the Senate, hopes to classify the names of all local police officers and fire marshals as “personnel records,” shielding these individuals from the responsibility of dealing with public backlash in the case that something goes awry.
The bill, the Washington Post reports, was proposed as a response to an incident involving the the press, and the names of police officers considered too problematic to stay in their positions:
It started with a reporter’s attempt to learn whether problem police officers were moving from department to department. It resulted in legislation that is again bringing national scrutiny to the Virginia General Assembly: a bill that could keep all Virginia police officers’ names secret.
Two civil rights groups that oppose S.B. 552 say the bill goes too far, proposing less transparency at a time when the pressure to hold police officers accountable for their actions has ignited a growing movement demanding reform.
If the bill is signed into law they fear it will represent an unprecedented move, opening the door for other states to follow suit.
Supporters of the bill argue that officers and deputies could be at risk if their names are handed to the press. Despite a lack of evidence that the effort to target police officers is becoming popular in the country, Virginia lawmakers, like Republican Senator John Cosgrove, claim S.B. 552 will restore “a healthy respect for law enforcement” — something the senator says he seldom sees.
“Now,” Cosgrove says, “[police officers have] become targets of opportunity.”
Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police worked on the bill with Cosgrove, which might explain the wording of the legislation.
According to the Post, opponents of the bill in the Senate — like Senator Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax — say the withholding of officer names will increase the occurrence of corruption within agencies.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, also offered harsh words about the bill. According to Rhyne, police officers are paid by the public, so they “don’t get to do that in secret,” referring to the fact that the bill would also keep officer training information off the record. In her blog, she explained the position of her organization. SB 552 would “exempt from disclosure any information about salary — including name, position and job classification — for anyone in law enforcement,” she wrote.
To Rhyne, the House should not consider the bill because it “eliminate[s] the ability of the public to see how departments are organized, whether the number of employed persons falls within their spending and safety priorities.”
It’s like a secret police force. A police force the public must pay for, but a police force the public is not entitled to look at with any scrutiny.
Governor McAuliffe’s office reportedly hasn’t confirmed whether he will sign the bill if it makes it to his desk. In the past, however, the Democrat has “sided with law enforcement over civil liberties advocates.” Last year, he vetoed a bill written to limit the time officers may hold onto information tied to license plate readers.
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