Until last summer, police in Connecticut had to provide information about arrests or prove why that information should not be public. But a state Supreme Court ruling in July turned that bedrock principle upside down.
The court basically gave police full power to withhold much detail about arrests until the case is closed, which could take years. The remedy, the court wrote, is legislative and up to the General Assembly.
Now that bill, Raised Bill No. 6750, must come out of committee and be brought to a general vote. We implore the 15 committee members: do not let the bill die in committee.
Why should you care?
Police since July are obligated to provide only basic “blotter” information about someone arrested — name and address; date, time and place of the arrest and the criminal charges — and a news release, which need not contain anything more.
This means the police can withhold race, immigration status, whether the person has a previous arrest record or is in a position of trust. Mug shots taken at the time of arrest, which can be revealing, can be secret.
How someone charged with homicide got the weapon can be secret.
Most law-abiding citizens would want to know — and should know — this type of information about alleged criminals in their town or neighborhood.
The immediate defense of keeping information secret is that is necessary to avoid interfering with an investigation. Indeed, there are certain agreed upon exemptions under Freedom of Information law, such as the names of minors or the identity of informants. But if police are allowed to circumvent FOI, as they can under the court decision, and be the arbiters of what the public can know, where is the accountability?
One of the most powerful government entities would have carte blanche with no one watching. There is a certain amount of good faith entrusted in police to do what is best for the public — and often that is true. But not always.
The Justice Department‘s report released last week on the Ferguson, Missouri, police department is strong evidence that checks are necessary.
The report showed that police deliberately and unfairly targeted the minority community. This, however, is not a solely minority issue. Police abuse can happen anywhere and to anyone.
The bill before the GAE committee — “An Act Expanding The Requirement For Disclosure Of Arrest Records During a Pending Prosecution Under the Freedom of Information Act” — would return the balance between the police and the public’s right to know. The Freedom of Information protection served the public well for decades — without jeopardizing investigations — and must be restored.
That is in the best interest of all.