Freedom of Information, Criminal Records, & Accountability

By way of full disclosure, I’m Chair of the VT Journalism Trust, doing business as VTDigger.org, serve on the Board of the VT ACLU, and am a former Chair of VT public radio, but right now I’d like to make a simple, rational case for transparency as it relates to public and press access to police records.

The Attorney General opposes a proposal under discussion in Senate Judiciary to adopt the federal Freedom of Information Act standard in Vermont. It would require that law enforcement officials seeking to shield criminal investigation records from the public convince a judge that public disclosure would harm the investigation or compromise safety and privacy concerns. The term for this balancing of the public’s right to know with protection of individual rights is “access absent harm.”

An African-American man suffering from hypoglycemia is dragged from his own home and – even though neighbors told police it was his home – taken into police custody. The police later denied he had been “arrested” – a move to prevent the arrest records from being released to the press.

The current proposal does not even address access to internal police investigations such as the one where an emotionally disturbed man under family care seeking help from a healthcare facility is dead after being incorrectly tased by a state trooper, or the one where an officer is accused of falsifying time sheets.

All federal agencies and 21 states have adopted the federal standard now under consideration by the Senate Judiciary. And while I know that Vermont is a special place; we’re just not that special.

Adopting this standard is the right – and the rational – thing to do. Vermonters and others are rightly seeking more transparency (absent harm) from their leaders and nowhere is this more important than in policing. Citizens become disaffected when law enforcement is secretive, above scrutiny and beyond accountability. This serves no one well – especially law enforcement. Well-trained law enforcement officers who follow procedures and best practices have everything to be proud of and nothing to hide.

Privacy, safety and prosecutorial considerations are all relevant. If access constitutes real risk, the case can – and should – be made before a judge for third-party review.

The Vermont Constitution guarantees the right to hold government officers and public servants accountable. Everyone is better off when the public understands how their officials are performing, including the officials themselves.  Such blanket shields only create mistrust and hide bad practice. Neither the public nor public servants benefit from such secrecy.

One man with a history of seizures and mental illness is dead, another unjustifiably dragged from his own home, and we need to understand why events like these happen.

By every measure, we have one of the best-trained state police systems in the country. I’ve never had an encounter where I was not impressed with the officer’s respect and intelligence. Transparency will only enhance that reputation. Attorney General Sorrell is simply wrong in his opposition to this proposal. Vermonters deserve better.

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