FOIA Friday: UVA withholds police body cam footage, more possible MVP problems • Virginia Mercury (2024)

  • TRANSPARENCY

What Virginia officials withheld or disclosed, May 31–June 7, 2024

One of the less noticed features of the Virginia Way is the long-running tendency of the commonwealth’s leaders to conduct their decision-making behind closed doors. While the Virginia Freedom of Information Act presumes all government business is by default public and requires officials to justify why exceptions should be made, too many Virginia leaders in practice take the opposite stance, acting as if records are by default private and the public must prove they should be handled otherwise.

In this feature, we aim to highlight the frequency with which officials around Virginia are resisting public access to records on issues large and small — and note instances when the release of information under FOIA gave the public insight into how government bodies are operating.

UVA won’t release campus police body cam footage

After Israel-Hamas war protests roiled the University of Virginia — leading to 27 arrests and sharp criticisms of school leaders’ response to the demonstrations — the university denied VPM News’ open records request for UVA Police body camera footage from the campus clash. This week, the school’s board of visitors was scheduled to hold its first regular meeting since the protests and fallout.

VPM asked university officials to share video recordings from the cameras its officers wore during the May 4 protest, when UVA President Jim Ryan said campus police repeatedly asked protesters to leave the grounds and were met with “physical confrontation and attempted assault.” The university then called in Virginia State Police, who deployed pepper spray to clear an encampment on campus; 27 people were arrested in total, including a dozen UVA students and four employees.

UVA denied VPM’s FOIA request for the footage, “saying the materials are related to an ongoing criminal investigation,” VPM reported on June 3.

Though this week’s June 6 board of visitors meeting agenda doesn’t include discussion of the May 4 protest, it might address the $9 million settlement UVA reached with the families of three university football players killed in a shooting on campus in 2023, announced last week. The university’s handling of that incident and refusal to release an investigative report on the deadly shooting, after first saying it would, has come under widespread scrutiny.

“Ryan faced pushback after delaying the release of an independent review of the events leading up to the incident because, he said, it could impact the alleged shooter’s criminal trial,” VPM News reporter Dave Cantor wrote.

The Daily Progress newspaper last month filed a legal petition to access the shooting report, after the university declined to release it in response to a FOIA request from the paper. A trial to determine if UVA must release the report is set for June 21 in Albemarle County Circuit Court.

The Mercury’s efforts to track FOIA and other transparency cases in Virginia are indebted to the work of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance dedicated to expanding access to government records, meetings and other state and local proceedings.

MVP letter reveals more possible problems

A letter from Mountain Valley Pipeline developers to federal regulators cited “about 130 potential problem areas that required additional analysis” or repair, according to the Roanoke Times.

The newspaper received the letter in response to its records request to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, seeking the full report submitted by the pipeline’s developers. The administration declined to provide the full report and shared only the introductory letter that accompanies it, but the missive contains clues about dozens of anomalies discovered during the pipeline’s testing that ended in March.

Testing for dents and structural soundness in buried sections of the pipeline, called caliper tool runs, turned up 50 anomalies that “needed to be excavated for further analysis or remediation,” the paper reported June 3. Another test that applies an electric current to the steel pipe that’s then measured from the ground found “80 excavations needed to be completed to either validate the data or remediate the coating” on the pipeline.

The findings add additional context to debates about the pipeline’s safety, which opponents continue to challenge. Developers are preparing to start pumping pressurized natural gas through the pipeline in “the coming days or weeks,” the paper wrote.

Charlottesville police oversight board: Revised guidance on sharing records inadequate

City officials released new guidelines for the Charlottesville Police Civilian Oversight Board to request and access police records, but the board said the new guidance isn’t up to snuff.

The board has not had access to police records since October of last year, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow, which impeded its work to make information about officers’ actions more accessible to the public and investigate police misconduct.

Police Chief Michael Kochis “ordered the department to cut the PCOB’s access to department records, despite the city ordinance saying that the Board ‘shall be provided full access’ to all police records relevant to its investigations,” the news outlet reported.

Kochis’ took that action “after learning that there were not written guidelines for the information sharing between the police and the board,” according to the board’s chair Bill Mendez. The department drafted guidelines in November but the board felt they allowed police too much authority to withhold records, among other issues. The board’s executive director then made recommendations to the document to alleviate that concern.

Mendez told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the revamped guidelines signed by City Manager Sam Sanders on May 31 don’t include those recommendations and that it “has only minor changes compared to its fall predecessor.”

The board and police department can contest the new guidelines before the City Council, Mendez said. Since the board’s founding in 2021, it has reviewed one case — which included allegations of excessive police force and biased policing practices — before losing access to the police records in 2023.

Have you experienced local or state officials denying or delaying your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [emailprotected]

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FOIA Friday: UVA withholds police body cam footage, more possible MVP problems • Virginia Mercury (2024)
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