02/05/16 – By Terry Cowgill
Of all the issues that arise in national, state and municipal government, few of them raise my hackles like public officials who try to block access to information that should be available to the public. [Read More]
Of all the issues that arise in national, state and municipal government, few of them raise my hackles like public officials who try to block access to information that should be available to the public. [Read More]
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information had reason to celebrate at its annual meeting this month. It is the 60th anniversary of the group’s founding by Connecticut journalists seeking to protect the public’s right to know, a right not always appreciated or understood by the public, or by some public servants at every level of government who prefer to perform many of their functions away from the prying eyes of the taxpayer.
Also this year the group campaigned successfully to restore access to police arrest records lost in a state Supreme Court decision. Recognizing police could use the decision to keep the public in the dark about the circumstances surrounding arrests, the court itself recommended that the legislature explore remedial action.
This the legislature did, over the initial opposition of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane. He eventually negotiated a compromise with Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission and her staff, and James Smith, president of the CCFOI. CCFOI cited the efforts of Rep. Ed Jutila of East Lyme for his fine work in shepherding the bill [Read More]
The UConn Board of Trustees adopted the budget without discussion in public and after reviewing it behind closed doors for 90 minutes. Last month, the university’s Financial Affairs Committee also met for 5 ½ hours in private to craft the budget.
“That’s how it’s always been done,” UConn President Susan Herbst told reporters after the vote when asked about the closed-door meetings. The governing board for the state’s other public college system — the Board of Regents — rarely meets in private and held public meetings over three days to discuss their budgets. The Regents system includes the four regional Connecticut State Universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak College.
The lawyer for UConn justified the trustees’ private meetings by pointing to state law that exempts drafts of public records and discussion of them from disclosure if an agency determines that the public interest is better served by withholding them.
“The budget is a draft until the Board acts on it,” said Richard F. Orr, the school’s general counsel. “UConn made the determination that the public interest in withholding outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
Open government advocates disagree.
“To discuss the budget of the state’s premier public university in executive session is outrageous,” said James H. Smith, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and longtime journalist at several daily newspapers in the state. “They should be discussing their budget in public. It is a public university. The taxpayers pay for the university. Why are they hiding how they want to spend their money?”
The university received $355.7 million from the state this fiscal year and is slated to receive almost $400 million in the fiscal year that begins next week.
Thomas Hennick, education officer with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, said state law gives public agencies a lot of leeway in determining what they consider a draft.
“One person’s draft is another person’s final copy,” said Hennick, whose state agency acts as a watchdog to determine whether public bodies are adhering to the state’s public disclosure laws. “Most budgets I see are put together in public.”
The university’s budget chief, Scott Jordan, said after the meeting that since so much of the university’s budget is spent on staffing, and cuts that are being considered so often could impact personnel, it’s appropriate for the board to discuss their options privately.
The adopted budget relies on having some faculty teach more courses and laying off 40 to 50 non-instructional staff.
Jordon gave a six-minute public presentation on the budget, followed by the trustees’ unanimous adoption without discussion.
“It would be easy to cut budgets across the board,” Jordan said in his presentation, “but that is not what we want to do. We want to move full speed ahead.”
The board separately adopted a $1 billion budget for the UConn Health Center, and also without public discussion.
To pay for the increased spending at the university, students who are Connecticut residents will have to pay $670 more to attend the university next year — a 5.2 percent increase — which will generate $34.4 million in revenue. Another $6 million will come from the tuition UConn will collect by enrolling 250 more students next school year.
The budget assumes UConn will maintain its current faculty levels.
“We will be hiring about as many faculty as will be leaving,” Mun Choi, the university’s provost, told reporters after the meeting.
When UConn officials approved a four-year tuition schedule that increases the cost to attend the school by nearly 30 percent, the school said it would use much of that additional revenue to hire 290 additional faculty so students could get the courses they need to graduate on time. Now heading into the last year of that schedule, UConn has added 177 faculty.
The state budget covers nearly half of UConn’s increased spending by providing the university with an additional $48 million next year, a 14 percent boost. While grateful, UConn President Susan Herbst told her Board of Trustees Wednesday it is still less than what was needed to continue offering existing programs and services.
“It could have been much worse,” Herbst said, referring to the governor’s initial budget proposal, which would have cut state support for the school. “We are relieved and grateful for every penny.”
Much of the university’s increased spending is outside its control, Jordan said after the meeting. The average 6 percent pay raises the school is obligated to give unionized employees will cost $59.8 million. The governor’s budget office negotiated that increase as part of a state employee concessions package that followed two years of wage freezes with three years of raises averaging 6 percent.
“We have no control of those costs, which has put a lot of pressure on us,” said Jordan.
Other increases include $4.2 million for financial aid for students, $4.1 million to hire the staff needed to accommodate the 250 additional students and $16.9 million for inflation on services such as dining and custodial services.
The legislature has passed a bill which requires police to release more information to the public about arrests, reversing a 2014 Connecticut Supreme Court decision which limited what police were required to give out while a prosecution is pending.
The measure was still awaiting Gov. Dannel Malloy’s signature as of June 5. If he signs the bill, it will go into effect in October.
Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of existing law, law enforcement agencies are obligated to release only the “record of arrest,” which includes the arrestee’s name and address; the date, time and place of the arrest; and the charges, and at least one additional report designated by the agency. The additional report could be the arrest report, incident report or a news release.
The ruling prompted an outcry among open-government advocates and media members, who said they need detailed arrest information to report the news.
The newly approved bill requires police to disclose the arrest warrant application and supporting affidavits, if the arrest was made by warrant, or the official arrest, incident or similar report, if the arrest was made without a warrant. It also requires that police blotter information include the arrestee’s race.
If a judicial authority orders the affidavit or report sealed, in whole or in part, then the law enforcement agency must disclose any unsealed portion, and a report summarizing the circumstances that led to the arrest, without violating the judicial authority’s order.
State Rep. Ed Jutila, co-chairman of the Government Administration Committee, helped spearhead the effort to get the legislation passed. He called the final result a compromise between the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney and the Freedom of Information Commission.
“It maintains a high degree of transparency while addressing the concerns the [chief] state’s attorney had about witnesses and the integrity of their prosecutions,” Jutila said. “This measure restores significant transparency and accountability to government during a critical time, when the liberty of our citizens can be impacted by the power of arrest and detainment.”
Jutila said he was displeased with the Supreme Court decision, which was contrary to how the Freedom of Information Commission had been interpreting the statute for years. Critics have argued that police press releases can be vague and leave out pertinent details. “A press release can contain virtually nothing, and there was no specificity about what had to be in it,” Jutila said.
The new bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from redacting from the arrest record anything except for witnesses’ identities, information which may prejudice a pending prosecution or law enforcement action, or information ordered sealed by a judge.
While a prosecution is pending, law enforcement agencies must disclose any public record that documents or depicts a person’s arrest or custody, unless there is a statutory exemption. If an agency receives a freedom of information request, it must notify the state’s attorney for the judicial district where the arrest occurred, to allow the state’s attorney to intervene in any proceeding before the Freedom of Information Commission.
Statutory exemptions include information such as the identity of informants or witnesses whose safety might be endangered; the identity of witnesses who are minors; signed witness statements; information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action if prejudicial to the action; juvenile arrest records; names and addresses of sexual assault victims; and uncorroborated allegations.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane called the final result “a fair balance between the public’s right to know and having fair trials. It provides more information to the public, because law enforcement has to provide a summary of what led to the arrest, but it allows police to protect details like the identity of witnesses.”
Kane said it also allows police to protect some information, such as facts known only to the perpetrator or witnesses. “We want to know if the person knows information because they were there [at the scene of a crime], not because they saw it on television or other media,” Kane said.
Mary Schwind, managing director and associate general counsel at the Freedom of Information Commission, called the compromise language “an improvement over where the law stood after the Supreme Court decision last year, so we are happy with it.”
James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he considers the final bill a compromise he can live with. Now, he said, “the public will get actual police documents—affidavits or arrest reports. It also requires that police body camera videos be available. It preserves enough of the people’s right to know what the police are doing and how they are performing.”
The Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from a freedom of information complaint against the State Police following the 2008 arrest of Toai Nguyen, who had been charged following a near fatal attack on his father on Route 8 in Derby. Police issued a press release on the incident, but refused to release the full arrest report. It took several months for the New Haven Register to obtain it.
According to the Register’s testimony before the legislature, once the report was finally released, the newspaper’s staff learned important information which hadn’t been in the original press release, including how the defendant was in the country illegally at the time of the attack.•
The author of this article, as a reporter for the New Haven Register, filed the original FOI complaint against the State Police that resulted in the 2014 Connecticut Supreme Court case.
By James H. Smith
The sun isn’t shining brightly on law enforcement action in Connecticut.
The sun did shine one day last month on the State Legislature with testimony on a bill that would open up criminal investigations more to the public. But now the legislation is stalled in committee. It may or may not see the light of day.
As of this moment, the public can be denied 911 tapes, mug shots of those arrested for crimes, the race of anyone arrested — just about anything but who was arrested, where and for what.
For two decades much of the information gathered by police in criminal investigations and arrests has been available to the public. But last summer the state Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that police can keep secret almost everything they obtain in crime investigations. Technically, it ruled that one part of the FOI statutes, Section 1-215, which limits what must be released, trumps another, Section 1-210, which provided for more transparency into police activity.
The Court suggested that the Legislature revisit the issue and rectify the seeming contradiction in the sate’s laws.
After FOI advocates met with the leaders of the Legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which has cognizance on FOI matters, it offered H.B. 6750, An Act Expanding the Requirement for Disclosure of Arrest Records During a Pending Prosecution Under the Freedom of Information Act.
The bill drafted by the committee would reverse the Supreme Court decision. There was a full day of hearings where police and prosecutors opposed the legislation and FOI advocates supported it.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane testified that “the Supreme Court went through the legislative history of the statute . . . when this Legislature very wisely enacted that section (1-215),” thus narrowing the scope of what must be disclosed.
The bill before the committee shifts authority back to Section 1-210, which was the basis of 20 years of Freedom of Information Commission decisions on what police must release.
FOI Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy testified how she looked back at the legislative history and found then-Sen. George Jepsen, now the state attorney general, saying that, “By closing off arrest records, we open up arrest itself as an avenue of abuse of civil rights because it will no longer be necessary for the police to defend an arrest on the basis of information that would be immediately available to public scrutiny.”
Murphy told the GAE Committee that Kane’s position “permits the police at their discretion to avoid public scrutiny of many aspects of an arrest, such as mug shots showing an arrestee’s appearance at the time of arrest or videotapes or other recordings made at the scene or in the police station . . . The law enforcement agency could withhold whether the person sits in a position of public trust, immigration status, minority status and the like . . . The (court) decision raises the question should the police have this absolute discretion to decide whether the public can learn this very important information.”
The committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Edward Jutila (D- East Lyme), told the CTNewsjunkie.com last week that the statute “is an embarrassment. It needs to be changed.” Section 215 gives the police “latitude to give virtually no information.” Still, Jutila could not guarantee the GAE Committee would move the proposed legislation to the floor.
Let’s hope it does. This bill must not die in committee. A full debate in the House and the Senate is needed.
James is a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, appears to have found the decisive argument for making the University of Connecticut Foundation subject to our freedom of information laws.
Willis, who is co-chairman of the Higher Education Committee, asked at a recent hearing whether the foundation should be subject to the 35-year-old state supreme court ruling in Board of Trustees of Woodstock Academy v. Freedom of Information Commission. “The precise question posed by this case,” said the court, is “whether a nominally private corporation which serves a public function may be considered a public agency for purposes of the FOIA.”
The court, in saying yes, used a “functional equivalent test”: 1) whether the entity performs a governmental function; 2) the level of government funding; 3) the extent of government involvement or regulation; and 4) whether the entity was created by the government.
The court also has ruled that all four criteria are not necessary for a finding of “functional equivalence.”
Former UConn President Homer Babbidge, in a letter to Alumni President Carl Nielsen in 1964, proposed the creation of the University of Connecticut Foundation and suggested that the Alumni Association earmark $5,000 toward the establishment of a foundation. Babbidge joined the foundation board, as did L. Richard Belden, a member of the General Assembly.
The Master Agreement of 1994 states: “The university designated the foundation to assume primary responsibility for the university’s development efforts.”
You can read on the foundation’s website today that it “operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut. As the primary fund-raising vehicle to solicit and administer private gifts and grants which will enhance the University’s mission, the Foundation supports the University’s pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, and public service.”
It seems to me that if it quacks like a duck it is a duck; that the foundation meets enough of the Woodstock criteria to be subject to the FOI laws.
Foundation officials testified at the committee hearing Feb. 26 that donations must remain secret or people wouldn’t donate. Yet at the top of the foundation’s website you can click on “Donor Recognition” where you find this:
“Public Recognition — Founders Society — The Founders Society honors UConn’s most generous benefactors: individuals and couples who have made significant contributions for the advancement of UConn’s educational and research programs. Donors become Founders Society members when they reach a level of $100,000 cumulative lifetime commitment to UConn. Members are publicly recognized as top donors to UConn, listed in an annual printed list distributed to all members, and included as special guests at events during the year.
“Charles Lewis Beach Society — Donors who make provisions for the Foundation in their wills or other planned gifts are named members of the Charles Lewis Beach Society. Members receive invitations to exclusive events, including a special luncheon each June.
“Leadership Annual Giving — … We are pleased to recognize annual donors whose generous contributions signify an investment in UConn’s growth and continuing ascent among the nation’s best public universities.”
If the legislature decides to allow donors, at their request, to remain private, that is one thing; but it is no reason to keep the foundation outside our FOI laws. After all, it is all about our premiere public university.
James H. Smith is president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is, for all intents and purposes, a duck. That’s the Duck Test, which is being applied right now at both the local and state levels.
In Wallingford, Town Councilor Craig Fishbein has asked the state Freedom of Information Commission to decide whether Wallingford Center Inc. is a public entity, and therefore covered by the Freedom of Information Act. In Hartford, some lawmakers are asking the same question about the University of Connecticut Foundation Inc. Both of these institutions maintain that they should be exempt from FOIA, so this is about the public’s right to know.
WCI defines itself as a “private, nonprofit organization” dedicated to “the beautification, preservation, promotion and economic revitalization of Wallingford’s center for the benefit of all the people of Wallingford.” The UConn Foundation says its mission is “to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut.”
Which is all well and good, but why do both these civic-minded outfits insist that they must operate behind a cloak of secrecy?
Fishbein argues that WCI gets most of its funding from the town and performs activities that were handled by town government in the past. Richard Gee, a lawyer for WCI, argues that the Center “may be an ally of Town Government,” but the town doesn’t control it, and “funding alone, without control, is not enough” to make it a public entity.
State Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, says the UConn Foundation “really could be considered a functional equivalent of a government organization” because it serves a governmental function and it, too, receives public funding.
Although the general trend in this state — since 1975, when Gov. Ella T. Grasso signed the landmark Freedom of Information Act into law — has been toward open government, in recent years there have been setbacks, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s campaign to bring the formerly independent Freedom of Information Commission under executive control.
Fishbein has said he isn’t questioning “whether or not WCI does a good job,” but that “taxpayers are entitled to know the who, what and why of the use of their money.” In a situation where questions could easily arise as to who may benefit most from the Center’s actions, this seems like a reasonable proposition.
As for the Foundation, James H. Smith, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former executive editor of this newspaper, has pointed out that because it acts as a “surrogate” for UConn and “manages hundreds of millions of dollars,” the public “deserves detailed information” so it can judge the Foundation’s activities. While the claim has been made that openness will have “a chilling effect” on donations to the Foundation, discussions have already covered ways in which donor anonymity could be protected — which would put the focus on the what, where and when of its functions, rather than on the who — so it’s hard to see the sense of that argument. At the same time, it seems strange — and maybe even wrong — that more than a third of the university president’s annual compensation now comes from the UConn Foundation, a source that’s not the state of Connecticut and that’s not answerable to the people of the state of Connecticut.
When you’re working with public money and the public interest, what you do is public information. Or should be.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6905 An Act Concerning the Awarding of costs for appeals under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Cassano, Rep. Jutila, Sen. McLachlan, Rep. Smith, Committee members:
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information opposes this bill because it appears to discriminate against the Freedom of Information Commission. CCFOI is not against awarding attorneys fees to people who take successful action against the government, but it should be done equitably.
This legislation applies to only the FOI Commission. The bill should be amended to apply to reimburse attorneys’ fees to prevailing members of the public who have taken action against any and all state agencies.
James H. Smith
Supporting government transparency since 1955
NEW BRITAIN — Members of the city’s five-person legislative delegation is mixed on whether or not to sign a pledge to protect the independence of the Freedom of Information Commission and oppose weakening it, but all agreed the FOIC serves a vital purpose in the state.
“I do not sign pledges, it’s been a practice of mine. But, I do support the FOI and the people’s right to know,” said State Rep. Betty Boukus, D-22. “Transparency in government is very important.”
As of the week of Feb. 10 only 30 of the state’s 187 legislators, or about 16 percent, signed the pledge which was mailed late last year and emailed again last month. Several legislators, including Boukus, State Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-6 and State Rep. Rick Lopes, D-24, said they never received the pledge. Others who didn’t sign said they just never got around to signing it or oppose it.
James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information for four years, said there were 10 exemptions to FOI law in 1975. Today, he said, there are 27.
“Legislative bodies need to openly and publicly debate issues, that is how democracy works,” said Smith, who was in the newspaper business for 42 years, including a stint in 2009 and 2010 as the Herald’s executive editor. “If to much legislation gets passed secretly that is not good for democracy.”
Smith said the next bill his organization will be pushing is related to getting access to the historical and medical records from the Connecticut Valley Hospital where Civil War soldiers died.
“What happened to those Civil War soldiers can shed light on post traumatic stress disorder” for today’s soldiers, Smith said.
The pledge reads: “I will support and protect Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, including the independence of the state’s unique Freedom of Information Commission, and oppose weakening it. If proposals are made to limit public access, I will, within my authority, assure such proposals are subjected to the public processes, including public hearings, and will support changes only when the public’s interest in non-access to records or proceedings clearly outweighs the public’s interest in access.”
Gerratana said she’d like to “see and read” the pledge “before I sign it. I’d imagine, though, it’s very reasonable and appropriate.”
Gerratana added, “I’m obviously supportive of the FOI. The commission serves an important purpose in the state. It provides sunshine and transparency within the function of government.”
Lopes said he’d have to “think about” whether or not to sign the pledge. But, said, “as important as what the legislators do, what the media does is more important. The media’s role in disseminating information to the public is one of the things that keeps this country safe and free.”
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-25, said, “I would not sign a pledge unless I am completely sure it will not go into horrible stories of how children have been murdered, such as in Sandy Hook. What would happen if pictures of murdered children could be in newspapers and on social media? I would not be in favor of that.” Sanchez added, “I do believe in transparency in government. Government should be telling the people what they are doing, it’s their tax money.”
And, State Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-26, said, “If someone puts a pen in front of me, of course I will sign it.” He added, “As soon as government starts keeping secrets people start losing faith in their government.”
Robert Storace can be reached at (860) 801-5202 or at email@example.com.
Police departments in Connecticut don’t have to release much information about arrests that they make — not in a timely manner, anyway — and open-government advocates are now saying that legislators need to pass a bill to increase disclosure requirements.
While some police chiefs see a value in explaining the circumstances under which people are charged with crimes, other law enforcement officials such as the state police have long kept their disclosures to a minimum and left major holes in the public’s knowledge about what happened.
The situation has bred conflicts between law enforcement and citizens or reporters seeking arrest documents, but for the past couple of decades the state Freedom of Information Commission was able to manage a sort of uncomfortable balance between those opposing forces.
That balance was shattered, however, last summer by a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of the state police and against the FOI Commission: The court said police agencies don’t have to tell the public anything but the most perfunctory information about arrests while prosecutions are pending.
It can take months or years from the time a person is arrested until his or her case concludes in court. And that’s too long a delay — because the public needs to be able to judge, when an incident is fresh, whether the police acted properly and effectively, some supporters of disclosure told a legislative committee at the Capitol complex in Hartford on Friday.
“Because government gives its law enforcement agencies monopoly power over the use of force and incarceration, they pose one of the greatest threats to a democratic form of government, if and when that power is misused or abused,” said James H. Smith, president of the non-profit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
Smith was testifying in favor of House Bill 6750 — “An Act Expanding The Requirement For Disclosure Of Arrest Records During a Pending Prosecution Under the Freedom of Information Act” — at a hearing conducted by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.
The bill would amend state statutes to reverse last summer’s Supreme Court ruling. The court said that between the time a person is arrested until the conclusion of his or her prosecution in court, the police don’t need to release any more than: 1) “police blotter” information, including the “name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest and the offense for which the person was arrested”; and 2) a press release, which is typically brief and adds little to what’s on the police blotter.
Under House Bill 6750, police would have to disclose any “record that pertains to the arrest of any person” under the provisions of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Under that act, a citizen can appeal to the FOI Commission if a police department refuses to release a document and then the police get a chance to justify their action by citing one of several exemptions in the law — such as that disclosing a document could endanger a witness or jeopardize a prosecution.
That’s how it worked for about two decades prior to last summer’s Supreme Court decision, and that’s how it would be again if the bill passes, according to Smith and other FOI advocates.
Law enforcement officials weighed in against the bill, however. The state’s top prosecutor, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, submitted testimony saying his agency “fully recognizes the public’s right to receive information regarding the arrest of a citizen,” but “that right is adequately implemented” by the law on which the Supreme Court relied “which makes public the basic blotter information and some additional information regarding the circumstances that led to the arrest.””The disclosure of information beyond this amount should not be mandated by statute and should rest in the hands of law enforcement agencies, who are in the best position to protect the integrity of a pending prosecution and the safety of witnesses,” Kane testified.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the FOI Commission, testified in favor of the new bill — saying that since last summer’s court ruling, police agencies can continue to “avoid public scrutiny of many aspects of an arrest, such as mug shots showing an arrestee’s appearance at the time of arrest, videotapes or other recordings made at the scene or in the police station, and records indicating an arrestee’s immigration status or whether the arrestee held a position of public trust, for example.”
“Should the police have unchallengeable discretion to decide whether the public can learn this very important information, or should this decision be vested in the FOIC, as it had been for many decades prior to the Court’s ruling?” Murphy said.
She said that Supreme Court “expressly recognized” in its decision last year that there are “numerous salutary effects of requiring greater disclosure,” adding that justices said it’s the General Assembly’s job to address the issue of requiring increased disclosure on arrests.
“By reversing [the court decision] and restoring broader disclosure requirements of law enforcement records after an arrest, [House Bill 6750] strikes an appropriate balance between promoting transparency in law enforcement and preserving the integrity of pending prosecutions,” Murphy said. “The FOIC strongly urges the legislature to adopt this carefully crafted bill.”
Last year’s court decision stemmed from a 2008 complaint to the FOIC by a New Haven Register reporter who was denied detailed state police reports that formed the basis of the arrest in Derby of a man on charges of attempted murder in the assault of an elderly man.
The state police said the reports sought by the reporter were exempt from disclosure. They provided an “official press release,” which contained the accused’s name, address and birth date; the date, time and location of the incident; the charges filed; and a two-paragraph narrative with additional information about the incident.
The FOI Commission ruled in favor of the reporter, but the police agency appealed in court. Two years later, when the accused pleaded guilty, the records originally requested were made public. But the court proceedings continued over the police’s refusal to release records at the time of the arrest — and those proceedings ultimately led to last year’s Supreme Court ruling.
Smith said at Friday’s hearing: “We simply ask the General Assembly to resolve an ambiguity that the Supreme Court recently identified in [the] General Statutes…and to restore the twenty-year interpretation of the Freedom of Information Commission that resolved the ambiguity in favor of greater openness and transparency. HB 6750 makes clear that “records of an arrest” — including basic blotter information — must always be released following an arrest.”
The committee’s two co-chairmen, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, and Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, had different reactions to the bill Friday.
Cassano said he’s bothered by the prevalence of information on the Internet, television and in print media about people’s arrests when they haven’t been convicted of a crime, and may never be. That damage to a person’s reputation can’t be undone, he said.
Jutila said he thinks “we need to do something” in the wake of the high court decision because in many cases a police press release says virtually “nothing” to the public beyond to the basic blotter information.
Police agencies can pretty much give out all the information they want about an arrest, but that’s not the norm — and Jutila and others suggested that lawmakers need to improved upon the minimal disclosures required under the Supreme court ruling.
Even Kane agreed that “I think the public is entitled to more information than is routinely given” about an arrest. But he said he has begun discussing with Connecticut police chiefs a “protocol” under which departments would improve their disclosure policies. He said he didn’t yet have a target date for developing that.
Murphy said policies can always be reversed, and legislative action is needed to lock the changes into statutes.
Smith responded to Cassano’s comments by saying that public trials are fundamental to a free society — and they always involve public accusations before a finding of guilt or innocence.
Likewise, Murphy said that while arrest reports contain unproven allegations, it’s part of the price of having a free society in which there are no secret arrests as in other countries over the course of history. Also, she said, the FOI Act already contains exemptions that address Kane’s concerns about the harm that inappropriate disclosures could do to witnesses. Police reports could be “redacted” to remove information that could harm witnesses, she said, adding that the system worked fine for 20 years before last summer’s court ruling.
Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said at Friday’s hearing that he admires and supports police — his grandfather was a cop — but he added that a police brutality incident in his hometown last year proved the value of releasing arrest information to the public.
He cited The Courant’s posting on its website of a video from an Enfield police cruiser showing three officers taking down an unarmed Windsor man last April, with one of them striking him repeatedly. Officer Matthew Worden was fired Oct. 3 over allegations that he used excessive force during the arrest.
Disclosure of such information “sheds light” not only on rare police misconduct that the public should know about, but also on the good conduct of most police officers, Alexander said.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on