By Michele Jacklin
“Only the facts, ma’am.” That was essentially what the state Supreme Court said in a unanimous, but controversial, 2014 ruling stating that police in Connecticut only have to release basic information about arrests to the public and press while prosecutions are pending.
A debate over the police transparency ruling, which the high court said could be changed by the state legislature in an effort to balance the public’s right to know against the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of criminal investigations, took place at a CFOG Symposium April 1 at Gateway Community College in New Haven.
The chief adversaries were Jim Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, who argued that the high court’s decision was extreme, revisionist and ultimately deprived the public and press of essential information, and Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who asserted that it’s not imperative for the public to know all of the details of an arrest, particularly if the information could unduly influence potential jurors.
The panel also featured New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman and Assistant Public Defender Tejas Bhatt, and was moderated by John Dankosky, host of WNPR’s “Where We Live.” The symposium was broadcast by CT-N and can be seen at: http://www.ctn.state.ct.us/ctnplayer.asp?odID=11383
Smith urged state lawmakers to adopt a bill that would force police to release “everything, barring the eight exemptions” under FOI law, which includes such things as the names of witnesses and rape victims.
“The law is way too restrictive for a democracy to operate effectively,” said Smith, adding that it was not sufficient for the police to only disclose “police blotter” material such as the name and address of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the criminal charges. “We need to know as much as we possibly can. The more information that comes out, the safer we are.”
Kane said not releasing the details of an investigation often helps the “integrity of the investigation.” For example, he said that many people are reluctant to cooperate with police if they know their names will appear in the news media. Also, having all of the details in the press has the potential to prejudice potential jurors.
“It’s important to allow police to investigate [crimes] and decide the right time to release the details,” said Kane.
Bhatt and Esserman took the middle ground, each saying they could see both sides of the argument. Esserman said transparency is critically important but the issue is one of timing. “I’m very comfortable releasing information when it’s safe to do so.”
Bhatt acknowledged that the public has concerns about “trust in policy and the criminal justice system” and the need to show how the system works. But he also said everyone has the right to a fair trial and that is sometimes undermined by the information that’s disseminated by the news media. He noted that crimes are often sensationalized by the press but there’s no obligation to publish follow-up stories when individuals are found not guilty.