Is It Curiosity Or Government Accountability?
Crime victims question whether it’s government accountability or curiosity that drives the disclosure of crime records, a victim advocate attorney told a state panel on transparency and privacy Wednesday.
The task force was formed as part of a new law that prevents the public release of any photograph or video recording that portrays the body of a homicide victim. The law also prohibits, for one year, the release of certain law enforcement audio recordings like those describing the bodies of children who were murdered.
Families of some of the victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre lobbied heavily for the bill late in the legislative session.
Hakima Bey-Coon, a lawyer with the Victim Advocate Office, summarized a letter from one of those families mailed prior to the passage of the new law. Bey-Coon questioned whether the release of personal information about victims serves the public.
“Are we really trying to look at government accountability, making sure that police officers are doing their job and responding, or are we really just looking at this because we are curious,” she said.
Bey-Coon said victims often wonder whether public interest in their cases is not something like rubbernecking at an accident on the highway.
“They often wonder if this is just a curiosity factor? Is this a situation where we’re driving on a highway and we’re stuck in traffic . . . when we finally get closer to the sirens we see an accident and what do most people do? They stop and look,” she said.
In a phone interview, James Smith, a member of the task force and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, praised Bey-Coon for her “eloquent” advocacy on behalf of victims. But Smith said disclosure of law enforcement records serve more than curiosity.
“If people see an accident on the highway, some people rubberneck and some people stop to help,” he said. “But highway accidents are a societal problem and they need all the exposure they can get. Just like, in my point of view, massacres in America are a big problem and homicides are out of control.”
Smith said the government should be disclosing more information on those types of crime rather than less.
The task force is charged with making a report to the legislature by Jan. 1, including recommendations on the balance between public information and victim privacy.
Last week Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, characterized the new law carving out exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act as a “stopgap” measure passed while the investigation into the Sandy Hook shooting is ongoing. The work of the task force is meant to inform more permanent legislative action on the issue.
During the task force’s meetings, Smith has suggested that group’s membership may be weighted too heavily in favor of reducing public access to information. Other members have voiced concerns whether the group can finish its work before it is scheduled to report to the legislature in a few months.
In its third meeting Wednesday, the panel got a crash course on Connecticut’s FOI law, a summary of legal interpretations of privacy, a report on how state police handle records requests, and a presentation on behalf of victims by Bey-Coon. Members also discussed scheduling public hearings in Hartford and Bridgeport.
According to Don DeCesare, the general manager of WLIS and WMRD who is serving as one of the panel’s two chairman, the group also will take time to ask for input from many of the state’s public officials.
DeCesare said invitations to speak to the group in the next few weeks will be sent to the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of the state, the president pro tem of the Senate, the speaker of the House, the minority leaders of the House and Senate, various mayors, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
A few task force members questioned what the officials will be asked to speak about and what the group is expected to draw from the testimony. DeCesare said officials would be asked to speak about the topic and to give their opinion on the group’s mission.
“Enlightenment as to their views on this topic. It’s a combination of courtesy and common sense to invite some of these officials to give us their views. They may choose not to come,” he said.
Smith noted that many of the officials on the list had a hand in the composition of the group.
“Those legislative leaders chose particular people, legislators and others, to sit on this panel to hammer out an agreement. I would suspect that they might be puzzled why we’re asking them to come when their own representatives are sitting on this panel,” he said.