Withholding details about fishing pier crash does not serve the public interest – The Virginian-Pilot

Withholding details about fishing pier crash does not serve the public interest – The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia Beach police on Tuesday finally revealed limited details about the person recovered from an SUV that drove off the city’s fishing pier on Jan. 27. In a press statement, she confirmed that the body found in the car was that of a 57-year-old man. A white male was previously reported to authorities as a missing person.

Police have maintained a strict silence since the incident, an approach that has sparked bizarre speculation and conspiracies about a high-profile incident at a prominent city landmark. Caution is warranted in death investigations, but the public is right to expect that the authorities will be more prepared and provide a full accounting as soon as possible.

By now, everyone in Hampton Roads knows the details of the car that was driven through two barriers and down a 650-foot Virginia Beach fishing pier before hitting the fence and plunging into the water. Traumatic cell phone footage of the incident, shot by an onlooker from the beach, documented what happened and went viral in the following hours, receiving national media attention.

Authorities used sonar to locate the car, which sank in about 17 feet of water, but rough waves and stormy weather foiled plans to send divers to check it out. This continued for several days, during which time police refused to reveal basic facts about the SUV, including its make and model, saying they did not want to cause “panic.”

The problem is that in the absence of official information, rumors and insinuations spread like wildfire throughout society. Instead of asking the public for help in the investigation, the police kept citizens at a distance.

Residents of the area can appreciate the difficulty of the task here. The police encountered a bizarre incident that they correctly surmised would result in a death. Death investigations are handled with the utmost care to preserve the integrity of any potential criminal prosecution and to ensure that the next of kin of the deceased receive confirmation of this terrible news from the authorities and not from the media.

But not revealing basic information about the car takes this to an illogical extent. To say that the decision was taken with the public interest in mind strains credulity.

The limited information available was not due to the desire to ask. Numerous reporters, including those from The Pilot and the Daily Press, made repeated inquiries about the case — about the car’s origin and lack of license plates, about possible security considerations on the Boardwalk after such an accident, and about its connection to a missing person. – But these questions were not answered, leaving the audience in the dark. This is simply not good enough.

Virginia Beach Police are not the only law enforcement agency that operates this way. The Commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act gives police the option to withhold records of ongoing investigations from release. Although they are not required to do so, law enforcement almost uniformly cites this provision to keep these files out of public view, even when there is a compelling case for their release.

Lawmakers in 2021 voted to change Virginia law and require many closed investigative files to be made available for public review. It was a historic step towards openness. But in Virginia, lawmakers reversed their minds in 2022, making policing less transparent and departments less accountable to the public.

A recent Hampton Roads Quality of Life study, conducted by Old Dominion University, found high levels of trust in local police departments. Those in uniform generally do their best to balance their work obligations with the public’s right to know the details of criminal activity and fatal incidents in our communities.

But in this case, trust has to go both ways. Revealing what was known about this investigation could have buried some harmful rumors before they spread. This could help provide the answers everyone — law enforcement, the public and the victim’s family — should want regarding such a high-profile incident.

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