March 9, 2014 01:00AM
By Eric Cotton
It makes no sense to hold law enforcement less accountable for its handling of homicide cases, but that’s what the state legislature has done in the name of victim privacy. Now, the General Assembly is poised to go even further. Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act — one of the best in the country, though constantly under threat — would be seriously compromised by a bill to keep 911 tapes and crime scene photos secret in homicide cases.
After the Newtown massacre — on the last day of the 2013 legislative session with no public hearing — the General Assembly hastily passed a law to prevent the release of crime scene photos and audio recordings describing homicide victims. Lawmakers were reacting to a rumor that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore would try to make Newtown victim photos public to influence the gun control debate. But that was only a rumor. There was never an effort to publicize those images.
And yet the law has been on the books since last June. It also established a 17-member task force to determine the proper “balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” The panel, stacked in favor of limiting access to public information, recommended continuing the exemption for records in homicide cases, adding even more records to the list.
Specifically, recordings of 911 calls and other communications would be exempt from disclosure if they relate to a homicide and capture or convey “the impaired physical condition of the caller or another person.”
Keeping these records secret makes it easier for officials to hide mistakes and wrongdoing, as Claude Albert, legislative chair for the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, pointed out in a letter to the task force.
“The vast majority of cases do not raise such questions, of course, but certainly, over time, there are cases where police response to an emergency seems inadequate; where the handling of an investigation or a decision not to prosecute is suspect; where a shooting by police is questioned; or some other shortcoming is alleged. When those cases arise, the public, at some point, must be able to review the record — including all the evidence.” Albert cited the 2007 Cheshire home invasion case, where 911 calls and dispatch tapes helped the public evaluate the police response and led to requests from the victims’ family for an internal investigation. In other routine cases, these records simply aren’t disseminated. Media rarely if ever publish photos of bodies at crime scenes.
The bill allows these records to be reviewed by the public, but copies can’t be obtained unless an individual convinces the state their release would not represent “an unwarranted invasion of privacy.” Intended as a compromise, the provision does more harm than good by changing the standard for disclosure. Under the existing law, records are considered public unless they meet a specific exemption or do not “pertain to a matter of legitimate public concern” and would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” For the first time since passage of the state’s FOI law, the bill would put the burden on the public to prove why information shouldn’t be kept secret.
Allowing the concerns of victim privacy to trump government accountability and the public’s right to know is simply bad policy. And bad for our democracy.
Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.