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    Editorials
    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Your FOI is in our DNA

    Commitment to the principle of Freedom of Information lies deep in the DNA of The Day. Throughout its history, the newspaper has championed the right to know – not just our right to know, but yours. No legal or constitutional distinction separates the rights of the public from those of the press as regards freedom of information.

    The Day is also committed to the rule of law and supports the police and the courts in their roles of sustaining this as a society not of persons, but of laws. All of us are subject to the same laws; all have the same rights.

    And so, consistent with its principles, the newspaper is once again officially weighing in on a challenge to provisions of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The Day Publishing Company and The Connecticut Mirror sought and have been granted a motion to intervene in a lawsuit concerning release of names of public servants.

    The state employees in question are approximately 130 current and former state troopers who were identified by the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project as having reported a significant number of traffic stops not corroborated by other records. The data raises the possibility that troopers failed to report some legitimate stops or made up reports of other stops, actions that could skew the calculation of the rates at which police pull over Black and Hispanic drivers.

    Without accurate data the state cannot take steps to remedy the problem of unequal treatment because it cannot know if there is one. To hold responsible anyone who may have turned in false information, investigators in their audit have named troopers whose reports have raised questions.

    The Connecticut State Police Union filed suit to prevent disclosure of the troopers’ names and badge numbers, arguing the potential for “unwarranted scrutiny” and “false allegations.” Superior Court Judge Rupal Shah granted the motion Monday for the two news organizations to make their argument that the state Freedom of Information Commission, not the court, has the statutory authority to rule on claims as to whether particular government records are public information.

    Although the suit focuses on the handling of information those now being investigated, that must not obscure the concern about the handling of information already gathered by legal mandate. That may already have been done with disregard for the public’s right to know. The racial profiling project is basically an audit of what drivers were stopped by what officers on what dates. Given the deadly history of police traffic stops of Black drivers nationally, Connecticut is properly trying to ascertain whether police here attempted to lowball the percentage of stops of non-white drivers.

    This is not the first time The Day has concerned itself with data from a traffic stop study. The last time we did it the hard way.

    Day Staff Writer Sasha Goldstein and other newsroom staff in 2013 went through 7,600 handwritten file cards on which New London police on traffic patrol had detailed the race of drivers they stopped. The cards had gone, as required under a 1999 law, to the state African-American Affairs Commission, which stored them but analyzed only one year. Goldstein reported that many departments had stopped filling out the cards because no one was looking at the data.

    The reporting found that more white drivers were pulled over than Blacks or Hispanics, but that whites were less likely to have their vehicles searched. The reporting did not attempt to compare the cards’ data with other types of records as the current audit does.

    With modifications, the law remained on the books, and the audit period currently in question starts with the following year, 2014.

    Working journalists learn early that people in public service rarely welcome scrutiny of their actions. Even an attitude as seemingly neutral as “I’ve been doing this for years, I know what I’m doing,” however, skirts open government.

    Law enforcement actions need more scrutiny than any others, precisely because the law allows some stages of investigations to be kept secret. Perhaps it is just habit that inclines police to keep things out of the public record even longer. But Connecticut law also sets limits on secrecy, including the professional conduct of people entrusted with protecting and serving. The Freedom of Information Act is a good law, a safety net that ultimately benefits all Connecticut citizens, whether sworn officers or civilians.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.