Connecticut has pledged to make law enforcement more transparent.
NBC Connecticut Investigates put that to the test, seeing what it takes to get the documents and background material associated with three incidents this summer involving state troopers.
On July 24, a young woman in Brookfield reported to Connecticut State Police she got rear ended twice by a car that took off.
State troopers determined she was struck by one of their own - State Police Sergeant Catherine Koeppel, driving her agency-issued vehicle.
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In two separate assault cases within the next week, another trooper was arrested, and another suspended.
We wanted more details on all three cases, and that posed a challenge.
We started gathering primary source documentation on the trooper, learning that right now, you have to go to at least four different places to get it:
- Personnel Records: The Department of Administrative Services
- Internal Affairs Reports, Body, & Dash Camera Video: The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Legal Affairs
- Full Accident Report: The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection - Reports and Records Division
- Prior Disciplinary Records: The Office of Policy And Management
It’s our job as journalists to sort through all of this, but what if a member of the public was trying to get this information?
The state did get us personnel and disciplinary records we requested on the two cases involving alleged trooper assaults within a few weeks. But our Freedom of Information requests for body and dash cams in the alleged hit-and-run took almost two months.
The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s Reports and Records division, the office responsible for getting us the full accident report in the alleged hit-and-run, told us they’re working on requests filed this past winter.
The office said it is backlogged, right now working on requests made in March.
So we have not been the only ones waiting in line.
We learned the most about the Koeppel case from the body cam, dash cam and phone recordings we received. After the crash, the sergeant called a state police troop, saying she struck a deer.
Troopers then located Koeppel’s damaged Dodge Charger. When they knocked on the door of the house where they found it, no one answered.
Three days later, Koeppel was arrested via summons for following too closely and evading. She declined to give a statement to the arresting trooper.
Koeppel pleaded not guilty and declined our requests for comment.
There still have been questions about how troopers determined charges against her.
Despite multiple emails and phone calls and a trip to the Danbury courthouse where Koeppel first appeared before a judge, we have not been able to obtain a detailed narrative of the crash and the immediate investigation into who was involved.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which in 2020 authored a study of police transparency, said our experience is not surprising.
“What the government has figured out, is that making it slightly difficult to obtain information is virtually the same as putting it off limits entirely. If you make people jump through a variety of hoops, call different offices, wait forever, chances are they’re going to give up,” said ACLU CT Legal Director Dan Barrett. “Delay has a cost. It has a real cost when it comes to democracy.”
The state countered that investigations of alleged trooper misconduct often take time. And the agency that oversees the State Police gets a lot of records requests.
“They receive more than 50,000 Freedom of Information requests per year. That averages out to more than 135 FOIA requests, per day, 365 days per year,” said Chris Collibee, a spokesperson for the Office of Policy and Management.
The state said it believes it has streamlined the records request process.
This winter, it will debut GovQA, billed as an one-stop computer portal where the public will be able to request records from any state agency.
“There’s a tracking process, so we’ll understand where things are at so things aren’t falling through the cracks, so we do really speed up the process,” Collibee said.
Jodie Gil, an associate professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, questioned how effective GovQA will be, especially if someone needs to check on the status of a records request.
“The complication could become, who are you requesting from? Like, there's no human being involved it sounds like, and so it starts to be like when you're calling your credit card company and you're just talking to a robot,” Gil said.
Not everyone is a fan of GovQA. The cities of Bridgeport and Waterbury have been using it for several years now. Each have faced complaints with the Freedom of Information Commission that the portal has lengthened the duration of records requests, something the cities have denied.