By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorThe ongoing investigation into the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, has not only raised questions -- yet again -- about racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, but it also calls attention to the issue of police transparency.
There’s a continuous struggle between the people’s right to know and the government’s tendency to keep us in the dark about how it functions. Sunshine laws are essential to opening the doors to the government’s inner workings, but these laws vary dramatically from state to state.
Just as media attention to the Martin case was beginning to subside last week, journalists obtained information from authorities showing that the arresting officers had proposed charging Zimmerman with negligent homicide/manslaughter, which directly contradicted a public assertion made by the chief of police. At the very least, this particular piece of information cast suspicions on the police investigation and helped spark additional public debate.
If the shooting of Martin had occurred in Virginia, the press would be able to obtain almost nothing about the incident. Our public records laws regarding access to criminal investigations are far less powerful than Florida’s. In fact, in Virginia the public cannot even access criminal investigative or prosecutorial records in closed cases, let alone those concerning ongoing investigations.
A sad example here is the killing of David Masters by Fairfax County police in 2009. Masters had allegedly stolen a handful of flowers from a nursery and was pursued by police. The police apparently approached Masters’ vehicle and shot him through the side and back windows of his car. We know that Masters was unarmed, but otherwise have very little information about the incident. The Fairfax County police conducted a secret investigation of the shooting, released no details, and ultimately ruled that the shooting was justified. Pleas from citizens groups to let the public know what had happened were ignored. Even the name of the officer who killed Masters wasn’t revealed until 2011 when the police voluntarily released it.
The opacity of police work in Virginia has not gone unnoticed by open government advocates here. We and the press have pushed the General Assembly to pass a bill granting greater access to police records, but lobbyists for the police have convinced legislators that letting taxpayers know what they’re up to will somehow undermine their work.
Virginia not only has a weak public records law, but almost no formal civilian review of police actions. It’s little wonder that Virginia is at a high risk for corruption, according to a recently released report by the Center for Public Integrity. The state received an F overall, and specifically in categories such as public access to information and judicial accountability.
The lack of police transparency in Virginia undermines the community’s trust and confidence in law enforcement. The police may prefer to shield their documents from the public scrutiny, but it is that very scrutiny that is essential to a fair criminal justice system.
Virginia’s legislators need to strengthen our state’s public records law by granting access to criminal investigative and prosecutorial records so long as the release of those records does not jeopardize ongoing investigations. When such records are made public, government watchdogs like the ACLU and the media will be in a better position to hold our leaders accountable for their actions.
As of one of Virginia’s favorite Founding Fathers James Madison said, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.” Indeed it would be a great tragedy if our “Great Experiment” failed because we could not sufficiently monitor ourselves and hold government accountable.