Meet Officer anonymous

Published 7:16 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2016

    Let me introduce you to your neighborhood police officer, the one who is supposed to be your children’s best friend, who you can always depend on. He’s officer, uh, what was that name again? Oh, Smith. And this is his partner, officer Jones.

    And this young lady is Officer Smith II, and this young man is Officer Jones II. And this gentleman? He’s Lt. Jones III?

    What’s going on here?

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    Welcome to law enforcement in Virginia as envisioned by Isle of Wight County’s state senator, John Cosgrove. The good senator from Chesapeake wants to exempt the name of every police officer in Virginia from pubic disclosure, because he’s afraid that you, the public, might do harm to them.

    So, the next time you are pulled over or go through a traffic and you think the officer was rude, or you want to compliment him or her for being professional, you may well find that his or her name tag has been removed and their shield number covered up, only to be released under court order.

    How the Sam Hill did we become this paranoid?

    Mainly, we got here because in the past couple of years, there have been what seems to be an unusually large number of unarmed people shot by police officers in various communities across the nation, and that has led to anger — most of it totally unjustified — toward police.

    There are other factors that have helped. Since 9/11, there has been a national trend toward militarizing police departments. The federal government has been largely responsible for that, providing billions of dollars worth of military equipment to local police departments and cranking up the fear that a terrorist is lurking around every corner.

    There is certainly a need to protect the personal information of police officers. Their personal phone numbers, home addresses and any family information should be routinely protected. And protecting the identity of undercover officers is a given.

    But personally, I believe we should know who is behind the badge of the police officers we have dealings with, and in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County we do. And it is usually a smiling and professional individual.

    In fact, if Senator Cosgrove would spend a few minutes reviewing the websites of both the Smithfield Police Department and Isle of Wight Sheriff’s Department, he will find the names and photographs of those agencies’ officers.

    Smithfield Police Chief Steve Bowman believes Cosgrove has “good intentions” in sponsoring this proposed barrier between police officers and the public. There have been some instances, Bowman says, in which “the media” have been aggressive in trying to determine what officers shot somebody. And, of course, he believes anyone working under cover should be shielded.

    But Bowman says of the Cosgrove bill, “I neither support nor oppose it.”

    The instances Chief Bowman refers to are fairly rare because, thank goodness, the number of people shot by police are fairly rare. And if an officer has to be involved in a shooting and, as a result, is threatened, then he or she should be protected. But Senator Cosgrove has been unable to point to a single instance in the Commonwealth of Virginia where sealing police officers names would have prevented violence toward that officer. It’s a classic case of a few bad circumstances leading to a very bad law.

    Isle of Wight Sheriff Mark Marshall said he is careful to protect the identities deputies whose work places them in unusually risky situations, such as drug interdiction, but the idea of broadly shielding the names of deputies who work in the county flies in the face of an open society, he feels.

    Marshall said that knowing the name of your neighborhood deputy “speaks directly to the tenets of community policing, of building a relationship with the community they serve.”

    “I don’t think we’re in a place like the Mexican Fedarales wearing masks. I don’t think we’re even close,” Marshall said.

    We may not be close, but thinks to Senator Crosgrove, we may be getting closer. The senator’s bill passed the Senate last week and I wouldn’t give you two cents for the odds of killing it in the house.