Task Force Protects Victims, Open Records

The Hartford Courant

That dreadful day when a deranged young man in Newtown murdered the innocence of an entire state, he also assaulted one of our freedoms. Before that day, we all had the right to review whatever the state's law and justice authorities collected at murder scenes.

Today that right has been limited. A law now prohibits us from gaining access to visual images of homicide victims, if they would violate the victim's or surviving family members' privacy, and audio tapes that describe a homicide victim's condition. That law was passed at the last moment of last year's legislative session. It emerged from the fear among victims' families that horrific video and audio from the Sandy Hook crime scene would be broadly distributed, deepening their anguish and dishonoring the memories of those they love.

Our legislators were cornered by circumstance and rumor. They reacted by paying a debt to the Newtown families and also to the families of all victims of murder. Their only public comments that night occurred amid their sympathy for the victims' families in perfunctory floor debates. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill.

Legislators may well be criticized for not anticipating the need, after Sandy Hook, for changes to the state's cherished Freedom of Information Act and further criticized for not following the proper procedure for passing a law: public hearings and ample public debate. Nevertheless, shrewdly, the legislative leaders inserted a back door into the newly restrictive law. The Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know was formed "to consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public's right to know." Its composition: 17 members, a cross-section of professionals from the information, law enforcement, advocacy and legal fields.

The task force met many times over six months. We held public hearings; we had presentations from the knowledge and experiences of our members; we commissioned research reports and, of course, we debated among ourselves for hours at our public meetings. It was carried live and on-demand on the state underwritten television channel. Capitol observers predicted the task force would split 9-8, rendering its recommendations moot. The law, these insiders said, would remain unchanged.

Instead, after lots of arguing and negotiating, the task force's recommendations are strong, as the votes on them were overwhelmingly affirmative, no worse than 14-3. The recommendations represent the best that both sides could achieve through mutual agreement. We responded affirmatively to the legislature's plea to find the balance it couldn't find last year.

We strongly reaffirmed the public's right to inspect and review all official documents and materials, collected from murders. Beyond that, our recommendations provide a procedure which allows full public access to these materials but prohibits their duplication or distribution.

Although several members wrestled with the instinct to reject access conditions, it should be remembered, the conditions we recommend do maintain full public availability. Yet we also provide a balanced, direct response to the public's revulsion from the release and subsequent dissemination of horrifying photos and videos. We guard against potential governmental misconduct by inserting an appeal process, which could provide full public release. Clearly the task force came to believe that guaranteed public access, albeit without general distribution, is preferable to restrictions on public access voted in last year's bill.

Our final report, available online for all to read (www.cga.ct.gov/gae/VPTF/taskforce.asp), does not presume to be the final word. By our votes we strongly urge the legislature to pass our recommendations into law, as we have written them, then engage in a more thorough legislative review of all that pertains — on both sides — to this most vexing of issues: How to provide some measure of privacy to the families of crime victims without denying the public its right to know what its government is doing.

Adopting our recommendations into law should return Connecticut to the forefront in providing public access to official law enforcement and justice materials. Last year's bill had, in grief and fear, lost its way. Our recommendations point the way back.

Don DeCesare was co-chairman of the state's Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know.

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