FOIA Friday: ‘Urgent’ meeting before UVA withheld shooting report, police shooting video released

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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. 

Correspondence sheds light on UVA’s decision to withhold shooting report

Messages between the University of Virginia’s police chief and the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney reveal the parties’ repeated correspondence and an “urgent” meeting they convened days before the university’s decision to withhold a third-party investigation into a 2022 shooting that claimed the lives of three UVA students and injured two others.

Emails and texts obtained by The Daily Progress show UVA Police Chief Tim Longo requested a meeting with Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley Nov. 14. They, along with UVA’s chief operating officer J.J. Davis, met on campus the same day. 

The correspondence the newspaper uncovered doesn’t detail what the meeting was about or what any of the attendees said during it. “But three days later, UVa released a statement saying it would further delay the long-awaited release of the report — and that it was doing so with Hingeley’s blessing,” the paper reported. 

It was a departure from the school’s initial stance when it received the mass shooting investigation report last October, when officials signaled that they would share its contents publicly. 

Hingley is lead prosecutor in the case of Christopher Jones Jr., the former university football player who allegedly shot five students on a bus returning to campus from a Washington, D.C. field trip.

The university’s Nov. 17 statement, issued 72 hours after Longo, Davis and Hingley met, quotes university president Jim Ryan explaining the school “decided that we need to wait until after the criminal proceedings to release further information.” The same statement includes comments from Hingley indicating he had not reviewed the report. 

Transparency advocates and community members continue to call for the university to release the report.

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.

Roanoke assistant city manager’s unexplained downshift 

As the Star City of the South finalized its $379 million budget, former Roanoke Assistant City Manager and finance director Brent Robertson was demoted, a decision city leaders discussed in a closed meeting but have refused to publicly explain. 

According to the Roanoke Rambler, Robertson has been reassigned as the locality’s Special Projects Manager, with a lower salary than he received in his previous position and with no one reporting to him directly. Robertson had been the city’s number two manager since 2020. The city council replaced him with another longtime city employee who will act as Assistant City Manager until they hire someone to permanently fill the role in July. 

At least one city councilor took issue with replacing Robertson and appointing someone else without knowing the reason for Robertson’s reassignment, the Rambler reported. 

“I don’t want to vote on something that I’m not aware of,” council member Moon Reynolds said before the body entered a closed meeting. During that three-hour meeting, the Rambler reported, City Manager Bob Cowell explained why Robertson was being moved from the assistant city manager position. Those details have not been made available to the public. 

Robertson told the Rambler he plans to retire in the fall and he and city leaders are “ transitioning my role in preparation for that time” while “still working through the final details of what that will look like.” 

Richmond police release body cam footage of officer shooting armed man

City of Richmond police followed through on a previous commitment to release video recorded by cameras officers wear on their uniforms soon after police shootings by sharing footage of an officer shooting a man who appeared to raise a rifle as police responded to a 911 call in the city’s Church Hill neighborhood last month. 

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that officers investigating reports of a person banging on the hood of a car with a shotgun early on March 31 found 20-year-old Kenneth Sharp sleeping in the passenger side of a car. The video police released shows Sharp raising a rifle as officers open the car door; the officers flee and, as one asks Sharp to put down the gun, another fires four shots into Sharp, who again raises the rifle. 

Sharp died of his injuries; the officers have not been charged in connection to the incident. It was the first police shooting in the city of the year. 

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

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