American University radio reports that Virginia police are refusing to make public incident reports, documents that are open to review in other states. Unlike other states’ Freedom of Information Laws, Virginia’s allows these documents to remain sealed. Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings says there are valid reasons not to release this information to the public or the press:
Those incident reports contain the names and addresses and contact information of witnesses and victims of crimes. If those were to become public at any point, then we feel very strongly that the victims of crime will be less likely to come to us.
Despite this risk, states that make incident reports public have found the opposite result. Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, claims that his state’s open record policy improves the quality of police work:
In Florida, with the transparency level that we have, it helps law enforcement. . . . It’s made us better agencies simply because we proceed knowing that our work product is going to be reviewed by the press, by the public or by the people who are actually involved in the case we are working.
Bailey’s explanation aligns with the argument put forward by open government activists, such as OpentheGovernment.org and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — they suggest that increased transparency promotes good governance, as officials know that they will be held accountable for their actions.
Police records are not the only area in which Virginia transparency standards are questionable. The Lynchburg News & Advance explains that Virginia municipal officials regualrly hold closed meetings that could be opened to the public:
City councils and county boards of supervisors in the Lynchburg area last year met in closed meetings an average of 51 percent of the time during regular meetings.
While closed sessions may be appropriate in some limited cases, in general, transparency and a free press are crucial for ensuring efficient and honest government.