A Virginia police department is hiding the names of nearly all its officers from public view through a unique application of the state’s open records act, prompting transparency concerns from a local police oversight organization.
“These are the people who are out there daily with the power and the authority to use coercive force against citizens in the enforcement of laws,” attorney Andrew Bodoh, who represents activist Alice Minium in her lawsuit against the Chesterfield County Police Department, told Fox News. “Certainly we want to be able to know who those people are in our community just to be able to monitor the actions of government.”
Minium runs OpenOversightVA, a police transparency database that includes the names — and sometimes photos and disciplinary records — of some 27,000 employees from more than 200 Virginia law enforcement departments. The website also provides various public records, including police manuals, audits and contracts for technology like ShotSpotter, which uses acoustic sensors to detect possible gunshots and alert police.
But when Minium requested a list of the Chesterfield County Police Department’s payroll, the department redacted the names of all staff under the rank of lieutenant, more than 500 of about 530 total officers, according to Bodoh. The redacted names include new recruits, patrol officers and HR staff.
The department argued that the officers could go undercover someday and are therefore protected under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, law, which exempts undercover officers. It’s an argument that, to Bodoh’s knowledge, hasn’t been tested in court.
“Releasing the names of these officers would put the safety of undercover officers and the integrity of undercover investigations at risk,” a lawyer for the county told Minium in a letter.
Minium filed suit and the case was heard at the General District court level in late July.
Bodoh asked police Maj. Andrea Riesmeyer to define “undercover” during trial, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Riesmeyer answered that the department employs both “undercover” and “covert” officers. Its broad definition of “undercover” includes officers who may be wearing police badges or other parts of their uniforms.
“I think that the common sense of what undercover means is that it’s somebody who has to use a cover identity,” Bodoh told Fox News. “I could imagine it would involve people infiltrating a gang and using pseudonyms.”
“When you start to describe anyone in plainclothes as an undercover officer, that creates serious problems,” he added.
But a substitute judge ruled in the county’s favor, stating there was no FOIA violation.
General District is the state’s lowest level of court and does not serve as a court of record, Bodoh said, so he plans to appeal the case to a higher tier.
OpenOversightVA was “born out of the George Floyd Uprising in Richmond,” according its website, and Minium was an active participant in the movement. She wrote essays about police brutality, worked for a community bail fund and named her now-defunct Twitter account “antifascistsoup.” Police arrested her for conspiracy to incite a riot in August 2020, but the charges were later dropped, according to local news reports.
Minium was also one of several plaintiffs who sued the Richmond Police Department, alleging officers “horrifically targeted” them with First Amendment and Fourth Amendment violations after they filmed police activities during the 2020 protests.
“When you start to describe anyone in plainclothes as an undercover officer, that creates serious problems.”
Bodoh declined to comment on Minium’s history of activism but said that when it comes to FOIA, the requester’s identity shouldn’t matter.
“This information is open, no matter what your purpose of getting the information, no matter what your desire to use that information,” Bodoh said.
He added that payroll transparency can be useful in rooting out fraud, nepotism and other suspicious hiring practices. For example, earlier this summer a Culpeper County sheriff was indicted on federal bribery charges for allegedly accepting cash bribes in exchange for auxiliary deputy badges and credentials.
Bodoh worries the Chesterfield County decision could spur similar behavior from other police departments across the state.
“My biggest concern is that other departments may begin to use this approach to withhold the information about their officers from public release,” he said. “That’s why we feel it’s important to pursue this up to the higher levels of court.”
A spokesperson for the Chesterfield County Police Department declined to comment on pending litigation.