Compliance to records law means different things to each police department
A year and a half after the state began requiring law enforcement to provide more than just basic information as the “record of the arrest,” The Day set out to learn how well police departments are complying with the law.
The answer? It’s complicated.
The law, which went into effect in October 2015, was passed in response to a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling. The ruling held that, in active criminal cases, police agencies only needed to release basic blotter information: name, age, address, charges. But the ruling also said the state General Assembly should feel free to modify the statute, Section 1-215, “as it sees fit.”
In 2015, that’s what legislators did. In addition to the basic information, Public Act No. 15-164 declared, police also would need to release, depending on the situation, either the arrest warrant, the official arrest report or a partial warrant and a summary of the incident. Those documents, the law states, become public record “from the time of such arrest.”
Reached by phone this week, department heads and records specialists had different understandings of what it would take to adhere to the law.
Locally, Stonington, Ledyard and Groton City opted to include incident summaries with the blotter information available in their lobbies and, in some cases, electronically.
“It is a bit more work,” Stonington Capt. Todd Olson said, explaining that supervisors now have to create a short write-up for every arrest. “But it also has reduced the amount of calls the department takes from reporters simply trying to gather the basic information on an arrest.”
Like state police, Groton City goes a step further and includes redacted arrest warrants up front, too. As allowed by the law, police there do redact certain things, including witness and victim information or information they believe could prejudice a pending prosecution or a prospective law enforcement action.
According to Chief Thomas Davoren, the department pulled its old policy and trained officers in the summer of 2015, so they could be in full compliance with the law from the get-go.
“It’s a little more work for the officers ... but, as I understand it, I don’t think we have a choice,” he said. “The law says you have to do this. They’re supposed to be available that day.”
While Ledyard, Stonington, Norwich and Waterford don’t provide arrest warrants or reports up front, they do provide redacted versions upon request. Because of that, the records aren’t always released within 24 hours of a person’s arrest.
Some of those departments, without a dedicated freedom of information team, need to wait until someone trained in redacting information lays eyes on the document in question. Others may not have access to records from a detective division until someone from that division is on the clock.
But the goal, representatives at all four departments said, is to release the information as quickly as possible.
At Groton Town, Sgt. Kelly Crandall, who began overseeing records requests in August, said her department releases reports and warrants as long as they’re not statutorily sealed. The process can take a couple of days, as a sergeant, a lieutenant and sometimes others have to sign off on the document.
In cases where a person has bonded out, Crandall said she prefers to wait until a person has been arraigned, just in case the court seals the case at that time.
“It’s a tough situation,” Crandall said. “If we release it and then it’s sealed, the report is already out there.”
Still, she said, “we’re releasing a lot more than what we used to, from what I’m hearing.”
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who said his sense is that compliance with the new provisions of the 2015 law has been good, said most sealing orders are applied for and granted along with the warrant itself, not at arraignment.
“If it’s not sealed (when the warrant is granted), the presumption is it’s a public record,” Kane said.
In New London, acting Police Chief Peter Reichard said his department does have the capability to release warrants and reports upon request. But because of a backlog in requests, as well as the fact the department sends all records to the state’s attorney for vetting before release, he said it’s highly unlikely such a request would be fulfilled before the record was available at the court down the road.
“I think we’re busier than most departments in the area when it comes to arrests,” Reichard said. “With any major incident, we usually put out a full media release.”
Like Crandall in Groton, Reichard also is concerned that if the department were to release a document that later is sealed or expunged, the report unfairly would remain in the public realm. Reichard cited intoxicated driving charges as a main area of concern — people often agree to take classes and get those charges dismissed, he said.
But Dan Barrett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said that defense is one that wouldn’t stand under the law.
“You cannot guess as to what is going to happen to the record if it hasn’t at that moment been ordered expunged,” Barrett said. “It is at that moment a public record.”
Members of every department that doesn’t provide summaries or warrants up front said it’s unlikely they will in the near future. Some said their systems don’t allow summaries to be included with the blotter information. Others noted the cost associated with printing every arrest warrant the department carries out.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Groton Town Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., calling the law and others like it an “unfunded mandate.”
“But if you come in and make a request, we have to comply,” he continued. “Somebody’s got to do the work. There’s a cost associated to us.”
Barrett said the state’s open-records law is “good in substance” but not without issues. Some departments may say they’re in compliance, but not actually provide all the information required. Others, like state police, may provide warrants up front, but take months if not years to release arrest reports.
“For the operation of a democratic society, you have to know who police are arresting and why,” Barrett said. “This shouldn’t be a process in which one has to make a formal request and wait months. This is something we need to know every day. Otherwise there’s no hope of democratic control over police and the prosecutorial system.”
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