In the name of public safety, there are times when we want the police to take control of a situation, sort things out, give orders, and have those orders obeyed. Even if we ourselves ever have the misfortune of being placed under arrest, we should recognize that at the point of arrest the law really does give police wide latitude to do their jobs. There is a time and place for arguing and protesting the particulars of innocence and resisting charges, but it is not when the cuffs are going on. Connecticut has a long tradition of government openness and transparency, however, that has not ceded complete control of the details of arrests to the police — at least not until a state Supreme Court ruling last summer.
Last July, the court upended a longstanding interpretation of the state’s sunshine laws by the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) regarding the contemporaneous release of records related to arrests. In Commission of Public Safety v. FOIC, the court essentially limited the information police are obligated to provide at the time of an arrest to the bare minimum: the name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest, the charge, and a brief press release, which typically adds little to the required “police blotter” information.
Prior to this ruling, the FOIC routinely concluded that police blotter information on an arrest should be supplemented by other related arrest information, provided it did not reveal the identity or compromise the safety of informants or witnesses, reveal investigatory techniques not generally known, or invade the privacy of victims, along with a few other exceptions where disclosure was judged not to be in the public interest.
Information about local arrests not only informs a community about the nature and scope of law enforcement and alleged criminal activity near where they live, it also reveals something about the professionalism, efficacy, and expertise of the police force. Arbitrarily putting blinders on the discerning eye of the public leaves assessments of these key measures of police activity to the law enforcement agencies themselves. In our system of civilian-run governments, this is one area where we do not want the police to take complete control of the situation.
The state Supreme Court noted in its ruling last year the benefits of greater disclosure, but it suggested that it was the work of the legislature and not the judiciary to secure those benefits. To that end, the legislature has raised a bill to clarify the Freedom of Information Act and return to the traditional, less restrictive law enforcement exemptions governing arrest records that have guided the FOIC for decades. We encourage legislators to support this return to greater transparency in our police departments.