EDITORIAL: Even a small step toward transparency deserves applause

(File Photo)

(Photo/File Photo)

It’s not often we give the city’s police department kudos for its handling of what we deem should be public information, but it seems a change is in the air.

Regular readers know we have routinely taken the department’s leadership — and City Hall by extension — to task for shrouding its operations in unnecessary secrecy. Unfortunately, since state law gives local law enforcement agencies plenty of leeway to shield even the most basic facts about crimes and investigations, that’s about all we can do from this end.

Our stance springs from a firm belief that the press — whether a traditional newspaper, TV station or website — serves as a government watchdog. This role is severely hampered when officials are allowed to wave off requests for information without explanation.

More so, we strongly believe the public has a right to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods, whether it’s good news or bad.

For those reasons, we are happy to report witnessing what must be considered a welcome — and long overdue — step in the right direction this week: the release of the department’s internal review of the shooting death of Taft Sellers.

The 30-year-old was killed during an armed standoff with police officers in February. At the time, authorities kept mum on many of the details, including seemingly innocuous facts like the number of officers involved, shots fired, and the make and model of Sellers’ weapon.

We believed then, as now, that opting to stay quiet damaged the department’s credibility in the community and robbed residents of much-needed context.

You can’t change the past, but you can certainly learn from it. The police department was not required to release its review of the fatal standoff, yet officials chose to share the findings with the public. We cannot help but applaud that decision.

No, it probably didn’t require eight months to conclude that the department’s officers need to improve their accuracy (of the 37 shots fired in a three-second span, just five struck Sellers). But the information released — along with the facts previously publicized by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office — gives residents a chance to look over the data and come away with an informed opinion.

More importantly, from our perspective, it sets a precedent. Future law enforcement officials will be judged — either for their transparency or reticence — in comparison.

There is, of course, always room for improvement. This is just a small step, but an important one. For the moment, though, we should pause to thank our local law enforcement for being willing to take it.



  1. To the editor,

    Your first paragraph has the words “what we deem to be public information”. I think that is where the confusion lies in, as what you “deem” to be public information may not be what Alexandria Police “deems” to be public information. It appears to be a difference of opinion on what is necessary information.

    Yes, eight months is a long time to investigative; furthermore, keeping those officers off the street for 8 months is a ridiculously inefficient method, as many other departments get their officers back on the streets after several weeks or a month, officers who have been in similar encounters.

    However, it is not factually accurate to judge for the 8-month investigation. A major part of the delay was the medical examiner determining cause of death, which took a few months because of back-ups. The medical examiner doesn’t move certain cases to the front of the line and prioritize them; rather, they take them as they come. After this, the Commonwealth Attorney conducted his investigation. Randy Sengel is known to be relentlessly thorough, which is a good thing. His report laid out actual facts and instances, and dispelled many of the false statements and wrong opinions that came to light after the shooting occurred.

    APD themselves weren’t able to conduct their internal review until after the CA’s office finished investigating. So, this review itself only took a couple months, as the CA’s report was only released a couple months ago. Thus, the APD did not take long in releasing their information. Also, APD is unique in waiting until all facts are known before publicly commenting. If it takes that long, then so be it. There is no constitutional or statutory entitlement allowing anyone this information, and certainly not in any specific span of time.