Commission rules state police broke open records law when it denied newspaper’s request for dash and body camera footage
In a win for right-to-know advocates, the public and journalists, the state Freedom of Information Commission has ruled the state police broke open record laws when the agency denied a request by the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury for dash and body camera footage of a high-speed chase and then refused to acknowledge for a time that the records existed.
And in what appears to be an unprecedented move that drives home the significance of the ruling, the commission ordered the state police to receive mandatory re-training on responding to requests for public information and meeting its obligation of transparency.
“We’re pleased the training was ordered,” Anne Karolyi, the newspaper’s managing editor, said Friday. “The commission has noted that there does seem to be a systemic failure by the state police to recognize that the public’s right to know is not an option.”
Journalists and members of the public seeking information from the state police have long encountered resistance. The Courant pressed for additional records on Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza for five years before the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the release of thousands of pages of withheld documents last year.
Veteran Republican-American reporter Jonathan Shugarts, who initiated and pursued the complaint with the newspaper’s backing, reported the commission cited the state police on at least 29 occasions since 2010 for violating the “prompt release” provision of the FOI law. There were 60 FOI complaints lodged against the state police in 2019, he reported.
“It has been a frustrating few months dealing with this complaint, but all of it was necessary, and worth it, in order to obtain records on behalf of residents of the state,” Shugarts said. “I hope that state police personnel who are responsible for handling FOI requests take their retraining seriously and provide records promptly to the public in the future.”
State police officials had not seen the commission’s ruling as of Friday afternoon, but they are familiar with hearing officer Matthew Reed’s findings last month that formed the basis of the full panel’s decision.
“I’m certain we will embrace the recommendations,” said Brian Foley, an aide to state public safety Commissioner James Rovella, whose agency includes the state police. “Since the commissioner came here last year, we’ve been trying to improve transparency. This ruling should actually help us in that effort.”
The genesis of this case, Karolyi said, was reporting Shugarts did in the spring of 2019, in which he requested dash and body camera video from several area police departments, including the state police.
“It really was a test, a spot check on how the departments were responding to FOI requests,” she said.
Some of the departments responded right away and it was also revealed that one of the agencies hadn’t bought the body cameras it said it was going to buy. The state police acknowledged receiving the request — but did nothing more.
Reed, the hearing officer and a former South Windsor police chief, found that the state police erred when the agency said only a news release, not the requested records, were releasable. Reed noted the agency failed even to prepare the promised news release.
He found the department provided the Republican-American and Shugarts with “an incorrect summary” of the FOI law, and that records of arrest, despite the agency’s claim otherwise, are public form the time of arrest “and shall be disclosed.”
Reed noted that state police asked the prosecutor handling the criminal case related to the chase if the requested video files should be withheld “in light of the pending case.”
The prosecutor, Catherine Austin, said there was no objection to releasing the records.
Still, Reed noted, the state police refused to release the material. And Reed noted that, in any case, asking a prosecutor for permission “is not an action sanctioned by the FOI statute.”
Eventually, the state police released the video files, but Reed found that “a promptness request cannot be rendered moot through the act of providing public records at a later time.”
Karolyi said she hopes Rovella’s expression of respect for the FOI provisions “trickles down through the rest of the department.”
“This was a friendly reminder about the responsibility for those in state government to be transparent,” she said.
Josh Kovner can be reached at email@example.com.
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