Fairfax police earn dubious distinction

The Fairfax County Police Department has earned a dubious honor: the department was a runner-up for the “Black Hole Award,” a distinction started this year by the Society of Professional Journalists for the “most heinous violations of the public’s right to know.”

The state of Utah won the Black Hole Award for its passage of a bill that the SPJ award committee called “the most regressive piece of freedom of information legislation in recent history.”

House Bill 477, passed earlier this month and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, makes major changes to the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act.

Starting July 1, anyone seeking information will pay heavy fees for search time, redaction, administrative overhead and legal review that will price citizens out of their government, the award committee said.

Additionally, there is a requirement that someone seeking information must prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that a public record should be public; every other state requires the government to prove it should be secret.

And there will be exemptions keeping a wide swath of electronic records secret, including text messages and other correspondence of officials, allowing government leaders to communicate in secret, the committee noted.

In addition to its award to Utah, the national SPJ committee named five runners-up, including the Fairfax police department.

The department was cited for its handling of an officer’s shooting of a motorist. In November 2009, an officer shot and killed an unarmed motorist on Richmond Highway. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about the incident, Fairfax officials declined to release video footage of the shooting from police cruisers or copies of reports written in the wake of the shooting. Even the name of the officer remains shrouded in secrecy, the committee said.

After a 14-month internal investigation, the commonwealth’s attorney announced in January that he would not file criminal charges against the officer. In a press release, authorities suggested the driver, a carpenter and former Army Green Beret with bipolar disease, had ignored police lights and sirens before the officer fatally shot him. But the police department denied a request for public inspection of the actual reports, the awards group concluded.

The other runners up were the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, for refusing to disclose information about the death of a toddler; the University of Maryland, for charging high copy fees to a student journalist investigating sexual assaults on campus; the CIA and Attorney General Eric Holder, for destruction of interrogation videos protected by the Federal Records Act; and the Broward County (Florida) School Board for keeping inadequate records.

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