By Dick Ahles
That awful video of a fleeing suspect being shot eight times in the back by a police officer in South Carolina led directly to the officer being charged with murder. But if it had happened in Connecticut and the police had gotten their hands on the video first, they could have legally prevented the public from seeing it.
When and if the investigation led to an arrest here, the police would have had to give the media — and the citizens who read and watch it — nothing more than the officer’s name, address and the time and date of the alleged crime. The video would have been turned over to the prosecutor, to be used or not in the officer’s trial. And that’s only one way the video could have been legally suppressed in this state.
In addition, a prosecutor could use one of 27 exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act itself, include the following exemption inspired by the Newtown murders.
“Any record created by a law enforcement agency or other federal, state or municipal government consisting of a photograph, film, video or other visual image depicting the victim of a homicide, to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members” will not be made public.
If a news organization gained access to crime photos taken by a witness first, it might be able to publish or broadcast them, but if the police in this state seized the photos as evidence or the photos came from the officer’s body camera, they could easily be withheld under a state Supreme Court decision and probably the FOI Act amendment ostensibly aimed at protecting a victim’s privacy. You can’t be too careful keeping secrets in Connecticut. Ask the UConn Foundation.
The victim in South Carolina ran from his car while the policeman was checking his license because there was a warrant out for his arrest.
He owed child support and a police chief, especially a police chief looking for a reason to protect his officer, could “reasonably” assume the dead man and his family would not want people to know he wasn’t supporting his children, that he was what society calls a deadbeat dad in addition to being a dead dad.
It’s never been easy to get information on arrests from some Connecticut police departments, even under the law that required police to make arrest records public, while exempting certain information that could involve juveniles or harm a witness.
But the Connecticut Supreme Court threw that law out last year, in the wake of the imagined exploitation of crime scene information and photos of the massacre of the Newtown children. There was a great deal of well meaning and fabricated concern about the possible misuse of information and/or pictures from the school, misuse that never happened.
And when the Freedom of Information Commission ruled the police violated its 20-year-old law by refusing to give the New Haven Register information on a Derby man charged with an assault, the police were upheld and the commission overruled by the Supreme Court.
The police can now withhold anything beyond the name, address, date, time and charges. That would include background information, photos, videos, even 911 calls, anything that might cast embarrassment or doubt on how the police handle a case.
The Supreme Court did suggest the matter should be further adjudicated by the legislative branch and that’s happening now. But the Newtown memories remain and even though such crime scene photos need not be released and never would be published, the imagined and manufactured fears persist.