The good news is that a bill intended to provide greater transparency surrounding police arrests has made it out of committee. The bad news is that the issue has become needlessly partisan and support for the bill remains soft.
The proposed law would restore the presumption in Connecticut that arrest records are public documents. This is how it should be. Arresting someone, taking their freedom, damaging their reputation, is one of the greatest powers assigned to government. An obvious check on this power is requiring police to provide the information that led to the arrest.
Unfortunately, a state Supreme Court ruling last year undermined the state freedom of information standards. The case stemmed from a New Haven Register request for a state police report on the arrest of a man in a Derby assault case. Police would only provide a press release.
The state Freedom of Information Commission ruled against the police, ordering release of the report, but on appeal, the state Appellate Court found in the state police’s favor, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court.
That ruling limits disclosure requirements to “police blotter” material — the name, address, date, time and charges. Justices said police also are required to release one of the following: the arrest report, incident report, news release or other similar document. If the department opts for a brief news release with little information, the press and public have no recourse.
The bill approved by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee would effectively restore the standards previously used by the state Freedom of Information Commission. While all nine Democrats on the committee voted in favor, only one of the six Republicans did so. According to news accounts, even some of the Democrats voting in support were squeamish about insisting police open arrest records.
We don’t see the problem. The bill includes necessary safeguards. Police and prosecutors could seek to close or redact records by making the case that the release would be prejudicial to a defendant facing prosecution, identify informants, or provide investigatory techniques not otherwise known to the public.
An open process leads to greater public trust in the actions of arresting officers. The legislature should approve this bill and do so in nonpartisan fashion.