Proposal balances public access, victim privacy

Our creators, the General Assembly, burdened us with an awkward title and an improbable mission. We were the "Task Force to Consider the Balance between Victim Privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the Public's Right to Know," told to reconcile the privacy rights of individuals with the information rights of the entire public.

Quickly we agreed to re-write our title to the "Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know." That, among our recommendations, is one that has stuck. The others have been too often publicly mischaracterized. For proper understanding, it is necessary to set the record straight.

In Connecticut today PA 13-311 withholds from public access any record depicting or describing a homicide victim. Those records, previously available under the Freedom of Information Act, are now and forever (unless PA 13-311 is repealed or amended) unavailable to the public. Editorials suggesting that the adoption of our recommendations would "tip the scale" towards less information neglect to note that PA 13-311, and numerous other previous revisions to the Freedom of Information Act, have already done that.

Sadly, PA 13-311 may also incentivize nefarious deeds by withholding crucial murder records from independent analysis. The law provides no recourse. Yet this very law, enacted last year, which imposed the new homicide exemptions, implicitly seeks its own amending through the creation of the task force. Essentially, our lawmakers asked the 17 task-force members to help them find a way back from the blanket restrictions of PA 13-311.

The task force recommendations reaffirm the public's right to inspect and review all official documents and materials, both audible and visual, associated with homicides. We would make all such materials available to all the people. We do propose that public inspection must take place at the custodial agency (i.e., police department) but, as a practical matter, that is no different from rules for access prior to PA 13-311. However, to obtain full public release, the requestor must follow an appeal process through the already existing FOIC and, if necessary, the courts.

Editorialists say, "There needs to be a balance." Indeed, there does need to be balance. Must we remind ourselves that last year about a hundred of our neighbors were murdered in Connecticut? With PA 13-311 on the books, the most critical of homicide-crime scene materials related to these murders remain unavailable to public scrutiny. No one can truly know whether authorities properly investigated the murders or even if those investigations correctly concluded anything with regard to the crimes.

Under current law, the public is left needlessly ignorant and powerless, eroding confidence in law enforcement and the justice system. The task force recommendations, enacted into law, will re-open all murder files to public examination and, when essential, full public release. We found a way to maintain the principle of full public availability, yet preclude the general release and subsequent dissemination of horrifying photos, videos, and audio, which would be degrading to victims and their families.

The task force approved its recommendations 14-3. Despite this strong affirmation, do not underestimate the intense negotiation and the true spirit of compromise that were required to achieve these recommendations. They are the product of many weeks of work. They represent the best that both sides could achieve through mutual agreement.

Voting for these recommendations were: the commissioner of Public Safety and the president of the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists; the chief state's attorney and a professor of law; the state's victim advocate and the general manager of the state's most watched television station; and so on. These individuals began the process far apart in their views. They concluded, in agreement, that, as a matter of public policy, Connecticut should make all records available but not readily disclosable.

Overall, the task force provided the framework to fulfill its charter. We, by overwhelming majority, found a balance between the privacy rights of homicide victims (and their families) and the public's right to know what its government is doing. We intended that by adopting these recommendations into law this session, Connecticut would "tip the scale" back towards enabling public access to official documents of all kinds.

The task force had one other recommendation, which regrettably has attracted little or no comment. We urge the legislature to "further study the issue of victim privacy in all of its aspects." For myself, I hope that is another recommendation that is made to stick, providing a needed balance.

Don DeCesare was co-chairman of the "Task Force on Victim Privacy and The Public's Right to Know." He is also past chairman of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association and president and general manager of WLIS-AM (Old Saybrook) and WMRD-AM (Middletown).

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