As cynical journalists often frustrated by stonewalling and secretive government officials, we were expecting the worst when we decided to send a reporter to every police department and state police troop in Connecticut (103 of them) this spring to test compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
And the results were pretty bad in a bunch of cases. The New Haven Police Department public information officer telling a reporter that “we keep secrets here” on that department’s way to an “F” grade sparked outrage from citizens of New Haven and open government advocates across the country.
But departments such as South Windsor showed that they are very serious about complying with the law, embracing public access to information about arrests and police activity, and that they have trained their rank-and-file staff well on these principles. East Haven, one of the most-criticized police departments in the state over the past few years, received a good grade, showing that transparency is a key part of its efforts to reform under federal Justice Department oversight.
Most encouraging has been the response since the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen published the results of our project, and other media outlets, including TV stations, the Associated Press, the New Britain Herald and the Hartford Courant, ran their own stories or editorials about it.
Here’s some of the results tracked by Michelle Tuccitto Sullo and Viktoria Sundqvist, who led this project for us:
Several departments who received an “A-” or “B” grade vowed to get an “A” if we do a similar test in the future.
The state’s Freedom of Information Commission fielded a spate of calls from local police chiefs requesting special training on compliance with the law after they received less-than-perfect grades.
The Norwalk Police Department immediately started posting arrest log information online to improve public access.
The Middletown Police Department, which received a pretty good grade of “A-,” sent a memo to all police department employees reminding them of best practices.
The West Haven Police Department promised to investigate why a reporter was denied access to information, and plans to train staff. State Police promised a similar investigation of why that happened at Troop G when we visited.
Westport police announced that it would be making arrest log information available for public access 24-7 in the lobby of its station.
New Britain police leadership reminded staff that the press and public should not be denied access to arrest log information.
And in New Haven, where a reporter was told, “You’ll never get blotter from us, we are just too damn busy,” and “It is not public information; these are arrests, not convictions,” the department has reversed itself, and now has an arrest log available for public access.
The goal of this project was to see how accessible this information was to the public. It was a spot-check done without identifying up front as reporters, to see how an average citizen’s request for information would be treated.
No matter how each individual department fared on the test, it is a step in the right direction to see so many departments around the state taking this seriously and vowing to get better. Even some that did well are now looking for ways to improve.
This kind of transparency from police is crucial for keeping the public informed. Police, and politicians as well, need to realize that an informed public might mean a few more phone calls and emails, but overall it is a great way to let the public know how well you’re doing your job.