Editorial: Government Openness Dealt Another Blow – Hartford Courant

That rumble you hear is Ella T. Grasso turning over in her grave in disgust at the damage today’s public officials are doing to the cherished concept of open government that she and lawmakers of her time bequeathed to the state.

“Secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy,” declared the preamble of the landmark Freedom of Information Act signed by Gov. Grasso in 1975. Those proud FOIA pioneers who put Connecticut at the forefront of government transparency would be aghast at how much secrecy clouds the public sphere today and how much trickery is used to advance secrecy’s cause.

Many public officials — legislators, prosecutors and the police — simply find it inconvenient to trust the public with the truth.

The leading immediate battle in the fight against secrecy centers on House Bill 6750, which began life this session as a means to reverse a bad state Supreme Court decision.

The justices had, in their decision last year, severely restricted the amount of information that police departments are required to disclose about arrests to so-called blotter information and either an incident report or a press release. Under the court decision, police would not be required to release such vital information as the increasingly important footage from body cameras — information that holds clues as to whether law enforcement officers are doing their jobs properly and with respect for civilians.

House Bill 6750 as originally written was indeed a good antidote to the Supreme Court’s suffocating restrictions. It would have required that all arrest records be open to the public unless they are exempted for reasons already covered by law, such as to protect the identity of informants or to avoid prejudicing a prosecution.

The bill passed the government administration and elections committee comfortably — only to be bastardized in a surprise move by the judiciary committee. Judiciary, at the behest of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, rewrote House Bill 6750 to restore the court’s meager disclosure requirements.

This is disgraceful. The disclosure of arrest records is needed to hold the police — in important ways the most powerful of government agencies — accountable and to elevate the public’s trust in government.

Mr. Kane and transparency advocates talk of negotiating a compromise. But HB 6750 should be restored to its original wording and passed by the General Assembly.

Don’t Let Police Decide What Public Should Know – Hartford Courant Editorial

The cause of open government in Connecticut has taken extraordinarily hard knocks of late, undermining this state’s once-sterling reputation nationally for valuing openness and promoting the free flow of information. One of the hardest was a disappointing state Supreme Court ruling last year that severely limits the amount of information that local police departments and the state police are required to disclose about an arrest while prosecution is pending.

House Bill 6750 would do a public service in reversing that ruling. It would restore the proper balance between government transparency and privacy and fair-trial interests.

‘What Is Good For Them To Know’

The legislature passed the Freedom of Information Act 40 years ago. Its preamble said, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know.”

Yet under the high court’s 2014 ruling, police have to disclose only so-called blotter information on an arrest while a prosecution is pending (which can take years). Blotter information is name, address and date of birth of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the criminal charge.

Police also must release just one of the following: the arrest report, incident report, news release or similar document. But a news release doesn’t have to have any more information than what’s on the blotter. Police departments may volunteer more details — some, like South Windsor’s exemplary PD, do so routinely — but they don’t have to.

That means that police are not required to release mug shots, witness statements or documentary evidence, all of which give a more accurate picture of a criminal arrest — and clues as to whether the arrest was proper.

House Bill 6750 would require that all arrest records be open to the public unless they are exempted for reasons already covered by law — for example, if releasing records would be prejudicial to a case under prosecution.

Otherwise, police may hide arrest details they don’t want the public to see.

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