NORFOLK (CN) – After months of negotiation, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper sued the state to gain access to a database that tracks the training for Virginia’s law enforcement officers.
Gary Harki, a reporter for the Pilot, sought the training database as a starting point for a series of articles on law enforcement in the state. The database reportedly contains the names and other information on the more than 40,000 people with police powers in the state.
After he made his request for database access last June, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services initially appeared willing to let him have it, with some agreed upon restrictions — namely that the paper would not publish the database or sue the department for unfettered access to its contents.
However, just as an agreement seemed in place, the agency balked, citing concerns over potentially exposing the identities of undercover officers.
On Sept. 23, Linda Bryant, a lawyer with the state Attorney General’s office write the reporter, explaining that the state wouldn’t release the database because, as personnel information, it was shielded from public records laws.
In its lawsuit, the paper contends Bryant is wrong about the law. Harki reiterated that point in an interview with Courthouse News.
“The information is public,” Harki said, explaining that he was seeking the information to examine patterns in how and why officers move from department to department, not just in the five-city region the newspaper covers, but in the state as a whole.
“We were trying to figure out why officers moved though different departments,” Harki said. “Were they getting in trouble? Or was it simple a matter of being offered better pay? The database was a simply a starting point for other stories.”
After receiving Bryant’s letter, Harki says he asked to agency to take another look and see if any part of the database is not covered by the personnel exemption.
To date, the complaint says, he does not have an answer to that question.
The Virginian-Pilot and Harki are asking the court to review the withheld records and determine whether or not they can me released. If the court concludes the information is not shielded from public disclosure, it asks that a writ of mandamus be issued ordering the agency to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and produce the database.
The newspapers is also seeking reimbursement of attorneys fees and other costs.
Bryant could not immediately be reached for comment by Courthouse News. Attorneys for the parties in the case declined comment.
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