Virginia bill to open police investigation records passes House of Delegates

A bill that would open past police investigative files to the public sailed through the Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday.



a car parked in a parking lot: A bill that could open past police investigative files to the public would further allow relatives to learn more about what happened in particular cases, such as the families of those killed in the May 2019 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.


© Kristen Zeis/The Daily Press/TNS
A bill that could open past police investigative files to the public would further allow relatives to learn more about what happened in particular cases, such as the families of those killed in the May 2019 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

Sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg and other lawmakers, the legislation to amend the state’s open records law passed on a 59-37 vote.

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Though it was mostly a party line vote carried by Democrats, five Republicans crossed over to support the bill. It could come up for Senate hearings next week.

If it becomes law, the measure could begin to end state law enforcement agencies’ longstanding practice of shielding nearly all their files from the public — whether they are incident reports from last week or files that haven’t been looked at in decades.

Though the Virginia Freedom of Information Act currently allows police, prosecutors and sheriff’s offices statewide to release such files if they want to, the departments typically say no to all such requests.

The bill says that “criminal investigative files” become public in Virginia when a court case is over. In cases that haven’t been prosecuted, the bill says, the files would become public three years after the incident occurred.

The legislation separately increases what police departments and sheriff’s agencies must release about more recent criminal incidents.

Proponents contend the changes will allow outside organizations to examine past cases independently, and allow families to get closure in death cases.

“We can’t do our basic work, we can’t investigate, without these files,” said Michelle Feldman, an official with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions.

“These files contain the critical information used to follow up on leads,” added Feldman, who’s been working to support the legislation. “After an investigation is completed, it really doesn’t make sense to withhold them.”

She said the bill would also allow the public to better examine police shootings, which she pointed out are typically investigated by the officers’ own agencies.

“If the public can’t get those records about what the investigation found, how are they ever going to have comfort that officers were justified in using force?” Feldman asked.

The bill would further allow relatives to learn more about what happened in particular cases, such as the families of those killed in the May 2019 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

“They can’t get closure because they are not getting the full truth and the full picture,” Feldman said.

But those against the legislation say the police investigative files contain lots of sensitive information — including evidence from witnesses and information about other crimes — that must be protected.

“We oppose efforts to make criminal investigative files public without law enforcement’s discretion,” Dana G. Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police,

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Virginia House of Delegates approves bills making it easier to remove Confederate statues and eliminating qualified immunity for police

That bill, part of a package of legislation overhauling police oversight, failed last week when a couple of Democrats voted against their majority. Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-Fairfax) said he voted against it to try to add language limiting local funding for police, but he dropped that effort Tuesday and asked that the bill be reconsidered. It passed 49 to 45 with two abstentions.

The House also voted to give the state attorney general authority to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of local police departments if they are alleged to be systematically violating the rights of citizens.

All the bills will head next to the state Senate, which has already killed its own version of a qualified immunity measure.

The statues bill removes the requirement that a local government wait 30 days and hold a public hearing before voting on the removal of a memorial. It passed on a vote of 54 to 43, with all Republicans voting against it along with one Democrat.

Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond) sponsored the bill to address what she called “the safety issue” after protesters began tearing down Confederate statues over the summer in demonstrations against racial inequity. A protester in Portsmouth was critically injured when a falling Confederate statue struck him on the head.

During the regular legislative session that ended in March, Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, established a legal mechanism for removing statues. It took effect July 1, but the measure’s lengthy review process failed to satisfy Virginia demonstrators’ urgent calls for action on Confederate memorials after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney invoked a state of emergency to remove 11 Confederate monuments on city property on the day the law went into effect. The city council later held a public hearing and voted to make the removals permanent.

An anonymous local resident filed suit against Stoney’s action, but the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the plaintiff lacked legal standing in the case.

The change to the law would allow localities to adopt a lengthier review process but would not require it.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) objected last week during a committee hearing on the bill, saying he wanted to “make sure the public has input” into such decisions.

McQuinn said the public would have input through elected officials and noted that local governments would be free to set up any process they saw fit.

“We’re giving the authority back to the localities without a lot of strings attached,” McQuinn said during the hearing.

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