Amendment to Arrest Records Bill Catches Transparency Advocates Off Guard
The head of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission was among those surprised to learn that a bill that would make arrest information available to the public was amended Monday by the Judiciary Committee.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said the following day that she was unaware of an amendment that narrowed the scope of information a police department would have to give the public regarding an arrest. She said she was having trouble obtaining a copy of the amendment, which state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said was “written on the fly.”
The amendment was still not available on the legislature’s website four days later on Friday afternoon.
Murphy said she thought the committee was going to approve the same bill as the General Administration and Elections Committee, and in the meantime she would negotiate a final product with Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane. Murphy and Kane have been trying to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and prosecutorial and privacy concerns.
Kane said Thursday that the move does not mean negotiations are over between his office and the Freedom of Information Commission.
“Hopefully we’ll talk to them about counter proposals,” Kane said, adding that he is certain that there’s room for compromise and is optimistic an agreement can be reached.
The issue pits transparency advocates — who say the release of arrest records is necessary to hold police accountable — against privacy proponents who say the bill must also protect the rights of witnesses, victims, and those who are charged but ultimately declared not guilty.
“The public has a right to know, but you can be sensitive about the amount of information that’s out there forever,” Kane said.
The bill passed by the General Administration and Elections Committee was much broader in the information the public could seek regarding an arrest.
The bill represented a shift from requiring no more than basic police blotter information and one other piece of information about an arrest to requiring at least that much information. All other records must be disclosed unless they fall within the Freedom of Information Act’s eight law enforcement exemptions.
As amended, the measure only requires the disclosure of an arrest warrant. In the case of a warrantless arrest, a probable cause summary detailing the events that led up the arrest must be disclosed.
That means there is no requirement for the disclosure of any other records, including arrest footage from police body cameras. The committee’s Senate Chairman, Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, has been a vocal supporter of the cameras but said he wasn’t thinking about that when he voted for the amendment. Instead, he said his decision was guided by a belief, formed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that crime scene photographs and video footage of homicides should not be available to the public.
Those homicide images are already exempt from disclosure.
“I will confess that I had that issue in mind when we considered the bill that was in the committee . . . and less in mind, although it should be in mind, what happens with body camera images and even what happens with cell phone images that might be taken by police officers or members of the public,” Coleman said Tuesday in an interview.
State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, co-chairman of the General Administration and Elections Committee, said Thursday that he had been aware of the possibility of an amendment but didn’t know what kind of language made it through the Judiciary Committee.
He said a proposal limiting disclosure to arrest warrants had been floated by his committee earlier, adding, “and that wasn’t acceptable to me.”
Jutila said he considers all arrest records to be public documents unless subject to exemption.
Despite not knowing exactly what form the amendment would take, Jutila said he called Tong and Coleman before Monday’s meeting to make sure they knew how much he cared about the bill and wanted it to get out of committee.
“If that’s what they had to do to get it out of committee and keep the discussion going, that was what I was mainly concerned about,” Jutila said.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the end product should use the most transparent police department in the state as a touchstone.
“We need to have a bill that reflects the greater degree of practical disclosure possible,” he said.
In the South Windsor Police Department, Chief Matthew Reed says he has been promoting transparency since he signed on as the department’s public information officer more than 20 years ago.
“Our basic rule is to tell the story,” he said. “Tell as much of the story as we can without violating the information we’re mandated to hold back on.”
Reed said his officers are mindful of all exemptions outlined in the Freedom of Information Act that serve to safeguard prosecutions and privacy. But outside of those protections, his policy is an open one.
“We want to release information. We don’t want to hold back information. Arrests are public and we don’t want to operate in secret,” Reed said.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.