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