Some Connecticut lawmakers and rights advocates are concerned about an incoming state bill that would restrict the public’s access to various records surrounding the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.
Last week, the Hartford Courant discovered a secret legislative proposal that would prohibit any public release of crime scene photographs, death certificates, and even the emergency 911 calls without the written consent from the victims’ family members. Additionally, the current draft of the bill would only allow written transcripts, not audio recordings, of any related distress calls to be readily distributed. At its core, the bill hopes to prevent the public from obtaining any photo or video that depicts the condition of the December 14 shooting victims.
“What we’re trying to do is recognize that the victims of Newtown have undergone a tremendous trauma,” Conn. House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey recently told the Courant. “In this unique situation, there is a sense that we should try to protect the families of the victims by limiting access to certain sensitive materials from the crime scene.”
What’s even more concerning to many is that this proposal has bypassed the typical legislative process. The bill has skipped the committee stage, and in extension, has not received the usual public hearing. Sandra Staub, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut, believes that a proposal of this nature shouldn’t be rushed and wishes that the public had a chance to weigh in on the bill.
“All government records should be available to the public by default,” she said. “If there's a compelling public policy reason to exempt some records, the exemption should be narrowly tailored and justified with a full hearing conducted with an open opportunity for public comment.”
Staub also says the withholding of death reports would only hinder the public’s interest to learn, noting past studies done by the ACLU.
“We recently studied the death certificates of 11 people who died after being shocked by police Tasers in Connecticut, and we found that eight of them were members of a racial minority. We also found a wide disparity in the stated causes of death,” she said. “This is important information with implications for public health, racial justice and public policy. Hiding it would harm the public interest.”
Local and national media have shared their skepticism too. The Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, Connecticut Broadcasters Association, and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information sent a joint letter to house and senate leaders last week.
“While many tragic events have made us question whether the disclosure of information is always in the best interest of a society, history has demonstrated repeatedly that governments must favor disclosure,” the letter read. “Only an informed society can make informed judgments on issues of great moment.”
The New York Times also chimed on Sunday with an editorial stating sensitivity concerns don’t justify the withholding of potentially educational crime scene records.
The Times wrote, “the measure, written without the knowledge of the state Freedom of Information Commission, would stop the release of essential information that the public and government leaders need to know in considering how to prevent crimes and to understand how law enforcement responded.”