As expected, much remains unexplained in a heavily redacted report on how well — or how badly — the Virginia State Police handled their jobs on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville.
Two journalists had sued both the city of Charlottesville and the state police for access to records following the deadly white-supremacist rally of two years ago.
From the very start, police responses and government handling of the disaster were criticized as being inadequate, uncoordinated, unresponsive. The reporters wanted to see the original operations plans for a first-hand look at how the two entities prepared for the event and how, or whether, they executed their plans.
Both the city and the state police initially resisted releasing the information. Charlottesville, however, complied in the spring of 2018, while the state police continued to fight.
Already, former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy and his Hunton & Williams law firm had conducted a comprehensive evaluation of authorities’ failures and accomplishments on that weekend. That report was released in late November 2017.
The report similarly cited initial resistance from state police and city police to requests for information. Among other tactics, the report says that the city police chief and several command staff even deleted emails rather than share them, and the chief imposed a kind of gag order on staff.
Despite these early blocks, the report says investigators were “able to develop [full] information from CDP regarding the handling of the protest events” — in part because individual officers ignored any fear of retaliation from the chief and shared their perspectives, placing the public good above personal interests.
Not so the state police (or, for that matter, a number of other state agencies).
Said the report: “…the VSP provided only limited information in response to our request,” calling this lack of cooperation “disappointing.”
Indeed, the report said that the agency’s posture of independence, evident in its attitude that it need not cooperate with the Heaphy review team, also was displayed on and around Aug. 12: “VSP did not share its formal planning document … with the Charlottesville Police Department” and — “in clear contravention of” the Incident Management Team’s plan — did not use integrated radio channels so that relevant agencies and personnel could easily communicate. It also distanced itself by holding separate training and briefing sessions for its officers, said the report.
It was in this context that reporters Natalie Jacobsen and Jackson Landers filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the state police operational plan for Aug. 12.
The VSP continued to fight even as Judge Richard E. Moore last spring ordered the agency to provide a redacted copy of the plan within 30 days. But he stayed the order because the police had appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The court declined to hear the case on a legal technicality, and it was bounced back to Charlottesville Circuit Court. Judge Moore removed his stay and ordered the redacted copy to be provided. But he allowed the VSP to redact the plan by simply dropping entire sections, rather than using the more usual method of providing a full copy with protected material blacked out.
Sure enough, when the reporters finally received the report earlier this month, they complained that it was over-redacted.
There is no way to know why police removed certain sections. Therefore, it’s impossible to determine whether police were protecting critical tactical material or just protecting themselves from criticism.
Police are permitted to withhold information that could endanger public safety if it were known. For instance, it’s likely that parts of the plan for protecting the public on Aug. 12, 2017, were relevant to the plan for protecting the public on Aug. 12, 2019 — the prime locations for snipers, for instance, or the most likely getaway routes. No one wants to endanger the public by allowing such critical details to be publicized.
But protecting the public also involves being transparent with the public — so that citizens can make their own judgments about the performance of those hired or elected to serve them.
This transparency also supports accountability. If public servants do not do their jobs well, the public deserves to know — so that it can demand reforms if need be.
By avoiding transparency, the VSP also may be avoiding accountability.