ACLU: Police activity lacks oversight

ACLU: Police activity lacks oversight

By Kathryn Watson (File photo)

There aren’t too many requirements local law enforcement agencies in Virginia must meet to acquire excess military equipment. And once they do, they don’t always let the public know what they have.

That lack of oversight — and transparency — is an overlooked problem behind the tanks and rifles, said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think people are focusing too much on the equipment and not enough on the process in this respect,” she said. “Our U.S. military can’t even acquire any weapons system without legislative approval from Congress, and some oversight from civilians in the Defense Department. We don’t have any similar system for our police.”

The Virginia State Police outline a few very simple, basic stipulations for law enforcement agencies hoping to get their hands on free surplus equipment — it’s first-come, first-served; applicants have to show they will use it for law enforcement business, and they cannot gain financially from the newfound property.
Other than that, few restrictions apply.

“What’s missing currently is any meaningful citizen participation in the process of deciding what kind of police force they want, how that police should be equipped, and other means of oversight in law enforcement issues,” Gastañaga said.

That lack of participation and transparency recently became a reality for Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Mark Bowes when several Richmond-area law enforcement agencies and the Virginia State Police refused to disclose exactly what kind of equipment they had or its purpose, citing tactical strategy for avoiding disclosure in a Virginia Freedom of Information Act response.

Without transparency, government — even law enforcement — can’t operate as it should, Gastañaga said.

“Transparency in government is a fundamental element to any part of government,” she said. “A lack of transparency in law enforcement means the citizens have no way of knowing whether people’s … rights are being trampled. … Transparency is the foundation for Virginians to know anything about whether their police are policing constitutionally.”

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for’s Virginia Bureau, and can be followed on Twitter