Public Records Reset: Supreme Court Reduces Info Police Must Share

If a crime was committed on your street, near your workplace or around your child’s school, would you want to know about it?

What you're allowed to know is at the center of a big debate over public information.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters took a close look at the situation.

This summer, a state Supreme Court ruling gave police more control over what arrest information they're required to share, and at least one large department is already cutting back.

It’s a decision some open government advocates call “disastrous,” while law enforcement says it’s all about protecting victims, witnesses and ongoing investigations.

“The records that the government has are the people’s records,” said media attorney Dan Klau, who helped draft the case on police openness before Connecticut’s Supreme Court.

It apparently did not sway justices, who chose what some call a narrow interpretation of what police must share with the public.

“They read it as requiring the police to release only a bare, bare minimum of the information,” Klau explained.

Connecticut’s high court ruled on a 2008 case involving the New Haven Register, which said state police were not forthcoming about the attempted murder of an elderly man on Route 8 in Derby.

The newspaper says the information was so minimal that it did not know if the suspect was a stranger, or familiar to the victim, and without information about where the victim was being treated, it could not update the public on whether the victim had survived the attack.

State Freedom of Information Commission Managing Director Mary Schwind says her agency ruled in favor of the Register.

But after a series of appeals that went to the state Supreme Court, justices ruled that current law only requires police to share so-called blotter information: name and address of the suspect; date, time and place of arrest; charges against the person; and a short news release or narrative. What’s included in that is at the discretion of police.

The FOI Commission said for two decades it had used current laws to force police to be more open. Klau agrees.

“The legislature could have disagreed with these decisions and said, we think you’re doing it wrong," he said. "But they didn’t.”

The state’s top prosecutor Kevin Kane told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters he agrees with the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of our FOI laws.

“If we have information gathered during the course of an investigation I think we owe it to those witnesses to be discreet and wise as to when that information is released, and to consider that in deciding whether or not to release it,” Kane said.

He added that constant battles over what is releaseable drains valuable state and local resources.

“And to have to argue each case on a case by case basis while the case is pending while the investigation is pending early on, is hugely burdensome, and hard to do, and most police departments and the state’s attorneys’ offices certainly don’t have the staff to be able to do that and cull through it,” Kane said.

So at least for the immediate future, police departments must only provide the bare minimum.

For example, if you go to Troop H in Hartford, you can see an incident report has the blotter material and a short description of the incident.

The state Supreme Court decision also clarifies that police do not have to share mugshots, and in response to that ruling, Hartford police no longer do.

Hartford police Chief James Rovella told the Troubleshooters he has concerns that releasing mugshots taints jury pools and suspect lineups, and he wants a policy consistent with the state and federal law enforcement agencies with which Hartford often works.

“We really have to balance what is going to be the best for both worlds,” Rovella said.

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters also heard from South Windsor Police Cheif Matthew Reed, who is also the legislative liaison with the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association and a member of the board of directors for the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

“We want to be able to preserve the case for prosecution, so we understand the importance of releasing limited information," Reed said. "But at the same time, we want members in our community to understand what their police department is doing, what kind of crime does or does not exist.”

Open government advocates say the South Windsor Police Department stands out as one of the most transparent in Connecticut, posting arrest information online daily, and sharing mugshots of those arrested.

“I’ve never had a situation where the prosecutor or the local state’s attorney called and said, I really wish you had not released that information because that really jeopardized our case,” Reed said.

South Windsor’s approach to arrest information could get examined further during the next legislative session.

While the recent state Supreme Court ruling did limit what arrest information police must share, the justices said the legislature could always make agencies give out more details by updating the current FOI laws.

“I think it is certainly now time to revisit the whole issue,” said State Sen. Martin Looney.

Pegged by most to be the next State Senate president, Looney told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters he would like to see new laws adopted encouraging more police openness, perhaps an approach similar to South Windsor’s.

“I think that wherever there is the greatest disclosure in current practice, should probably become the standard statewide,” Looney said.

Kevin Kane and others in the law enforcement community will weigh in on this debate too, and while Kane believes more information probably can be shared, he cautions it will be a challenge to strike the right balance.

“You have many people who are on one side saying that first amendment allows the public the right to know everything the public has to be able to judge the effectiveness of the law enforcement agencies," Kane said. "The way I look at it, and I think the way a lot of us look at it, is, fundamentally the most important thing for us to do first is determining the truth, the accuracy of the facts, whether or not the defendant is guilty or not. I believe, I tend to think that the judgment as to whether or not the police department did their job, or the state's attorneys, is something that can wait. Most of the time.”

What state leaders like Senator Looney and Kevin Kane would like to do, and what can get accomplished in the upcoming session are, as we know, two entirely different things.

Plus, you have to factor in potentially big changes in the makeup of our state government with every office up for grabs this November.

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