A 2014 state Supreme Court ruling allows police to withhold all but the sparest of information on arrests until cases are prosecuted, which can take years. The court said police must release so-called blotter information (name, address, time of arrest, charges) and little more.
Even before the ruling, getting such public records as mug shots and cruiser videos was not easy in Connecticut. Civilians in towns with histories of police problems (Enfield and East Haven come to mind) should be especially concerned that such evidence will be out of reach just when the public needs it.
The ruling was based on what one critic called a “tortured” interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. House Bill 6750 would restore what Connecticut had for two decades: public access to police arrest records unless those records qualified for exemption. Exemptions included juvenile records or anything that could identify or cause harm to a witness.
The bill should pass. At the very least, it should break through a logjam in the government, administration and elections committee for a debate on the floor of the House.
It’s in the public’s welfare to have information on crimes in communities. But also, the public should be free to monitor how police are handling arrests. Public records can serve as a check on abuses of their considerable powers.
The Rev. James Manship, for example, was arrested in 2009 for videotaping East Haven police at a Hispanic grocery store. The priest later said, after the two officers were found guilty of violating the civil rights of Latinos, “There were 27 drafts of my police report, 27 drafts of fiction upon fiction upon fiction to try and discredit me.” Under the supreme court ruling, police may choose to give out a press release instead of a police report. It’s entirely up to them.
Many police departments are loath to abide by even the minimal requirements that the supreme court says they must follow. In a compliance check last year by three Connecticut newspapers, New Haven police and state police Troop G in Bridgeport, among others, refused to provide even basic blotter information on arrests.
Coincidentally, this is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, a celebration started by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It’s also the 66th anniversary of the book “Freedom of Information,” written by the late Hartford Courant Editor in Chief Herbert Brucker (also president of ASNE). It’s a shame that the state where the now-ubiquitous term for open government was coined is lapsing into secrecy.