Gallup, the research and polling company, reported a year ago that 52 percent of Americans trust the police. That’s the lowest level since 1993. We suspect that the Connecticut State Police and the chief state’s attorney value the public trust, and wouldn’t want to see it erode more. If that’s how they feel, they botched it recently by using questionable tactics to evade the Freedom of Information Act and deny this paper access to arrest records of two Meriden men accused of drug-related charges.
The Freedom of Information Act protects everyone’s right to access public documents such as these, and it gives the press and the public some ability to scrutinize police practices. The episode began on March 28 after state police made the arrests. This paper invoked a new amendment to the Freedom of Information Act and requested access to the records of the arrests. Although the state police might have been able to justify withholding some of the requested information if it could establish a specific basis in the Freedom of Information Act, that’s not what they did.
Instead, backed by the chief state’s attorney’s office, it refused to release all the records on the grounds that the Record-Journal would have to get written permission first from a local prosecutor. That’s a concocted rationale that bogs down disclosure, and it has no basis in the law.
What do the state police and the state’s attorney have to gain from these tactics? Why are they obstructing the clear intent of the law by making this paper (and presumably any other interested person) jump through hoops in order to get access to public records? The new law was a carefully crafted compromise that balances the interests of law enforcement with the public’s right to open government. The state legislature intended to provide greater access to arrest records while protecting ongoing investigations and the integrity of prosecutions. So after much deliberation, it passed this new amendment to the Freedom of Information Act. Now, the state police and the chief state’s attorney’s office need to abide by it without creating obstacles.
This matter is now headed to the Freedom of Information Commission for a decision.