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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    OPINION: New London to fight FOI Commission’s order to release police body cam video

    The state’s Freedom of Information Commission has an orderly, legal process to adjudicate disputes over whether and when public data should be released to the public.

    It begins with a hearing in which parties can introduce evidence, testimony and arguments, a process that ends with a hearing officer rendering a proposed decision on the matter.

    That proposed finding then goes to a vote before the full commission, which hears further arguments from both sides before accepting, modifying or rejecting the hearing officer’s proposed decision.

    I’ve lost and won a fair number of decisions over the years and respect the fairness and impartiality of the process.

    City officials in New London, though, apparently do not so much, and Law Director Jeffrey Londregan told me recently the city plans to appeal to Superior Court the FOI Commission’s April 12 decision that ordered the city release police body camera video that I first requested to see more than a year ago.

    I requested some sample footage ―I randomly chose New Year’s Eve ― because the body-cam system is new and I thought the public would appreciate seeing how it works, and what the new law for transparency in policing has produced.

    The commission, in ordering the release of the videos, rejected the city’s demand that it was entitled to a $628.99 fee for processing the video but said it could redact certain things police did not want disclosed, like images of some minors’s faces.

    Appealing the decision to Superior Court will not only prolong the release of the videos, which the commission has ruled the public is entitled to see, and not have to pay for, it will be a very expensive proposition for city taxpayers.

    I can almost guarantee that taxpayers will pay a lot more to city lawyers, to conduct a long Superior Court lawsuit, than they would to process some video in response to occasional public requests.

    Whoosh. Whoosh. That’s the meter on legal fees spinning.

    Worse than enriching the lawyers at taxpayer expense, though, is the city’s willful defiance of a law passed in the wake of the George Floyd killing and summer of Black Lives Matter protests.

    A country reeling over police violence aimed at people of color demanded the transparency in policing that the body cams can provide.

    The response to the new body cameras law by mostly white Stonington, in another corner of eastern Connecticut, could not have been more different than in New London, with its majority people of color.

    At about the same time New London began to dig in its heels over my body cam footage request, Stonington announced it had assigned a staff member to manage and comply with body cam video requests, with no labor charges.

    There is a bill pending in the General Assembly, supported by the state police chiefs association, but opposed by the state FOI Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union, that would allow police departments to charge some processing fees.

    The bill would regulate when and how much could be charged and would allow additional redactions in instances, for example, when police contend privacy is an issue.

    New London, happy to pay its lawyers lavishly to fight for its video processing fees, no matter the outcome of the proposed legislation, is taking a hard and expensive line on the idea of letting the public see its police officers at work.

    I invited all New London city councilors to comment on the city’s likely expensive court appeal of the FOI order, but I didn’t hear from any of them.

    I also didn’t hear from New London Mayor Michael Passero, after I emailed him and asked him to comment on the city’s appeal of the ruling ordering the release of the body cam videos.

    He didn’t even have the city’s paid public relations agency, which he likes to use to communicate to the public, issue a statement.

    It seems odd that New London officialdom has already turned its back on the long summer of Black Lives Matter protests, rejecting in essence one of the principal police reforms that grew out of them.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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