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‘It Shifts the Burden from the Government to the People’

by Hugh McQuaid | Dec 17, 2013 8:24pm
(5) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Equality, Ethics, FOIA, Newtown

Hugh McQuaid photo

James Smith, president of the Council for Freedom of Information and Colleen Murphy, director of the Freedom of Information Commission

A proposal adopted Tuesday during the lengthy final meeting of a panel on privacy and public disclosure asks the legislature to approve policies to allow residents to inspect — but not copy — law enforcement records of homicides.

The recommendation applies to photographs and videos depicting homicide victims as well as recordings of 911 calls and other police communications describing their bodies.

Although the proposal would create a process for a resident to petition the public release of the records, it takes the significant step of shifting the burden of justifying such a release onto the person requesting them. Currently, the burden to prove a document should not be disclosed is on the public agency.

The recommendation was approved in a divided vote during the final meeting of a legislative task force. The group met for close to eight hours Tuesday in the Legislative Office Building, where most other activities were cancelled because of the weather.

The panel was created under a hastily-passed law intended to prevent the disclosure of crime scene photographs and certain audio recordings collected by police following the Sandy Hook shooting and other homicides.

The task force, which is made up of of both open government and victim advocates, has had a difficult time reaching consensus since it began meeting in August. Although the panel approved the core recommendation in a 14-3 vote, it took hours of various iterations and heated debate to arrive at the vote.

At one point in the meeting, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, described a proposal the group was considering as “the wholesale destruction of Freedom of Information.”

Smith, who has voiced concerns from the beginning that the group as weighted too heavily in favor of reducing public access to information, was not happy with the final recommendation, either. He called it “a sad day for the peoples’ right to know.”

“It shifts the burden from the government to the people. Forever, since 1975, the burden has been on the government to say ‘here’s why you can’t have it.’ The assumption is the information should be there. So it’s a huge new restrictive era in Connecticut FOI,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid photo Other task members saw the proposal as a compromise, which preserved the public’s ability to inspect law enforcement documents. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he felt the group struck a fair balance between victim privacy and public disclosure.

“As we’ve said all along, this is a hard, hard issue. There are serious interests on both sides. It was a hard balance to strike and, yeah, the process was a little hard to follow,” he said. “The important thing is with 911 tapes and the photographs, it gives people the right to look.”

The proposal will need to be considered next year by the legislature where its fate is less than certain. In its only unanimous vote, the task force asked lawmakers to consider the fiscal impact their recommendation will have on the agencies that it charges with acting as a venue for the public viewing of records. In most cases, this will be state and municipal police departments.

Emergency Protection and Public Protection Commissioner Reuben Bradford asked the panel to recommend considering additional appropriations for the State Police.

“I’ve got one reservation. This places an undue burden on my agency and there needs to be some kind of fiscal note with this dealing with appropriations . . . This really does force a whole lot of work on my agency that is already over-tasked,” he said.

The panel also recommended the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee take a more detailed look at issues facing crime victims.

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(5) Comments

posted by: Jennifer P | December 18, 2013  10:21am

Why do you show a photo of the Victim Advocate, Garvin Ambrose, but no quote from him. I am very interested in what he as to say about all of this. I know first hand the anguish of losing a loved one to violent murder. It sickens me that there are so many who feel it is their “right” to view crime scene photos, look at police reports, etc. Are you law enforcement? Will you have any kind of impact on the case? If the answer is “no” then mind your own damn business.

posted by: Noteworthy | December 18, 2013  11:06am

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane says reversing course in favor of secrecy and putting the burden on the public to justify releasing documents chronicling government work is a compromise. Of course he would. He has advocated for suppression in public and in secret and he prefers secret just like his Danbury colleague who spent a year accoomplishing damn little and turning in an incomplete assignment on the Sandy Hook report - an assignment that Kane praised while both of them fought tooth and nail to hide all of it.

Kane’s position here is as breathtakingly lame as his office’s specious arguments to hide the 911 tapes of Sandy Hook. The legislature should throw the recommendations of the task force in the garbage. As for more funding the the state police - and its alleged “undue burden” - two questions comes to mind: Have you people no shame? When will you be satisfied with the amount of money you have in your budget? Ever?

posted by: StanMuzyk | December 18, 2013  12:00pm

We have too many laws on the books now—just to create business for the lawyers—and this proposal just adds to our overload, if it is enacted.

posted by: dano860 | December 18, 2013  2:25pm

The police reports and all associated with an investigation belongs to the public. The taxpayers pay for the police, the investigations and all of the autopsy / forensic evidence.
Being a survivor of a victim is a sad place to be but as with most victims they get the short stick in these events. The criminal is given more access to their rights than a victim or their survivors.
It still remains public information.
The one paragraph that really says it all is this one…
The panel was created under a hastily-passed law intended to prevent the disclosure of crime scene photographs and certain audio recordings collected by police following the Sandy Hook shooting and other homicides.
“hastily passed law”, in the cover of darkness. Pandering!

posted by: Jennifer P | December 19, 2013  12:21pm

And what exactly is the “public” going to do with this information? Get their rocks off looking at pictures of mutilated corpses? As a member of the “public” you have absolutely no influence or say in how a murder investigation is conducted, in spite of the fact that the police force is tax payer funded. The office of the President of the US is also tax payer funded. Maybe we should all be privy to the nuclear codes as well.  And if you’re a member of the press - well, that’s all just click bait, right? A good journalist can tell a story accurately without showing gruesome photos or streaming frantic 911 calls. They serve nothing other than to satiate the depraved needs of a society completely void of empathy.