The cause of open government took another body blow under a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling handed down Monday.
In upholding the Appellate Court in a freedom-of-information case that originated in Shelton, the justices ruled that only the sparsest of information must be disclosed by local police departments and the state police in criminal cases from the time of arrest to the conclusion of prosecution.
This disappointing ruling gives police in a free society too much discretion and power to write the narrative of a crime by controlling information. The lack of information undermines public safety. It frustrates the public’s right to know as well as public efforts to hold police accountable.
Until now, the police were at least required to make a written case for denying requests for information.
The General Assembly must step in and restore a proper balance between the public’s various interests and the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of prosecutions. The balance now is too much in favor of the state.
The tidbits the court said police must disclose include so-called blotter information — name and address of the person arrested; the date, time and place of arrest; and the criminal charge. These disclosure requirements are already part of state law.
Police are also required to release one of the following: the arrest report, incident report, a news release or a similar document. Typically, police news releases — which most likely would be used to satisfy the court — have little information beyond what’s on the blotter.
Police will not be required to disclose such information as mug shots, details of allegations, witness statements, documentary evidence and, apparently, even the name of the victim.
Police still have the discretion to be forthcoming with information about criminal arrests beyond that required by the court decision. But experience puts a damper on hope.