Police investigations should be open to public

Every year when Sunshine Week rolls around, it seems there is some open government issue under discussion that is of great importance to the public. In Connecticut this year, the freedom of information issue under statewide discussion is a bill pending in the Legislature that if passed would reduce the information available to the public from police investigations. 

Senate Bill 970, an act concerning the confidentiality of evidence seized in a criminal investigation, is under consideration now in the Joint Committee on Judiciary. At a public hearing on the bill on March 6, the president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, Michael Savino, testified against the passage of the bill. In his statement, he said the Council opposed passage of the bill “because it would deny access to records that are crucial for public discourse and transparency.” He noted that the bill is a reaction to the release of more than 1,000 documents relating to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to The Hartford Courant after the paper won a Freedom of Information case decision at the state Supreme Court earlier this year. 

The wording in the bill of greatest concern to open government advocates, at least to this newspaper that counts itself among that group, is: “Property seized in connection with a criminal arrest or seized pursuant to a search warrant without an arrest shall not be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, as defined in section 1-200, unless such property is filed in connection with, or introduced into evidence at a criminal, civil or administration proceeding in the Superior Court.” This would have prevented the release of the documents in the Sandy Hook case because there was no arrest as a result of that investigation. The shooter, who was determined by police to have acted alone, killed himself after perpetrating the heinous crime.

According to Savino, the Sandy Hook Commission, which was given by the Legislature itself the duty of making recommendations on public policy in the wake of the shooting, could not access the documents until they were released following the decision in favor of The Hartford Courant. How could the commission be effective in making any decisions and recommendations without sufficient knowledge of the background of the shooter and the process of the crime? Any well-informed suggestions for prevention should be welcomed by law enforcement, educators and parents. This kind of research is critically important in American society today, with school shootings an ongoing national tragedy. 

In order to have such research happen, documents surrounding police investigations should be open to those who are willing to do it. There are other protections in the law that police and the courts can turn to if there are any number of defined privacy concerns. There should not be more added in Connecticut that would keep parts of police activity and investigations shielded from public scrutiny. Senate Bill 970 should not pass into law.

To learn more about any citizen’s right to know what government is doing, visit the state Freedom of Information websites: www.ctfog.org and www.ctfoicouncil.nfoic.net or find them on Facebook. And, for more on Sunshine Week, go to www.sunshineweek.org.