A Freedom of Information Act Request for the General Orders governing Loudoun deputies has been met with a $1970.80 demand—for a document police departments across the region post online or provide for free.
Police departments in Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William, Washington, D.C., and many departments in Maryland, post their General Orders online. Often more than a thousand pages long, they outline the department’s policies and procedures, covering everything from administration, to discipline, to investigations or what is expected when initiating a traffic stop. Likewise, Loudoun’s three police departments make their General Orders freely available upon request.
In January, a Fairfax County resident requested the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office to post its General Orders online, citing the practice of police departments in the region. He was challenged to verify that he is a Virginia resident and was told that releasing Loudoun’s General Orders would take 40 hours of staff time and cost him almost $2,000. He cancelled his request, and the General Orders remain locked up.
Loudoun’s three police departments—Leesburg, Purcellville and Middleburg—all offered to provide their General Orders immediately and without charge when requested.
“Ours isn’t secret squirrel stuff,” wrote Middleburg Chief A.J. Panebianco in an email. “I make it a public document.”
Purcellville Police Chief Cynthia McAlister said that when her department finishes an overhaul of its General Orders in December, she plans to post them online. She said when she worked in Fairfax, before the advent of the technology to offer those documents online, updated copies of the Fairfax Police Department’s General Orders were placed in the public libraries every year.
“The public pays for us to be there and I think the public should know how we operate,” McAlister said. “… It just gives a lot of guidelines for people to understand how we operate.”
There are some documents, she said, that are not open to the public—such as specific tactical procedures.
Loudoun Sheriff Michael Chapman said Loudoun’s General Orders contain secret information his office will not release to the public, such as details related to field operations.
“We actually do have to look at these to make sure before we just issue these things out, so we don’t post these things like police departments do, and we’re not required to,” Chapman said. “And I would say that for anything beyond that he may want, we coordinate all of our FOIA requests with the County Attorney’s office.”
He also said before releasing those General Orders that he would have to confer with the county attorney and Virginia’s risk management attorneys. However, he acknowledged the department has released portions of the General Orders upon request.
“We’ll copy it for them, we’ll get it to them, so we’re pretty responsive to that stuff, but it doesn’t mean we need to give everything out without reviewing it first,” Chapman said. “So, I think it’s important and it’s responsible to make sure that we look at things first.”
He said that was one difference between law enforcement that answers to the county government—a police department—and the constitutional authority of a sheriff, an elected official.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s more transparent than us, quite frankly,” Chapman said.