A bill crafted in secret by Connecticut’s chief prosecutor,governor’s office and legislators would prevent the release of some Newtown school shooting investigation records, including crime scene photos and videos and 911 recordings.
A draft of the proposal was released by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office Wednesday afternoon, a day after the Hartford Courant reported on the efforts to create the bill.
The legislation would apply only to the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, although emails obtained by the Courant showed that the Chief State’s Attorney’s office hoped the bill would apply to all cases in Connecticut. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the Associated Press on Wednesday he and other officials are working to address privacy concerns expressed by some of the Newtown families.
The legislation would be presented during the final days of the General Assembly’s session, which adjourns June 5. The draft is an amendment to legislation proposed earlier in the session that would increase fees for copies of accident and investigative reports produced by the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, including the state police. The amendment to House Bill 6424 – “An Act Concerning Fees for Searches of Accident and Investigative Reports of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection” – would:
‹ Prevent the release of any photos, videotapes, digital recordings or other depictions of any victim, without the permission of the victim’s immediate family. The adult victims who survived the shooting would also be able to grant permission to release the records.
‹ Allow any public agency to redact the identity of a minor witness to the shooting.
‹ Require public agencies to transcribe 911 recordings and provide written transcripts upon request for a 50-cent-per-page fee, but not require them to provide audio recordings.
‹ Allow officials to deny the public access to the victims’ death certificates. Kane said Wednesday some of the victims’ families are worried about the crime scene photos being published online. He acknowledged that traditional media outlets typically don’t publish gruesome photos of victims.
“Right now, with the Internet, we’re in a whole different era,” Kane said. “These images could be public and could be out there and could end up all over the place and you just don’t want families subjected to having that type of infringement.”
Kane said those working on the bill are attempting to “strike the right balance,” between protecting the families’ privacy and the public’s right to know. Mark Ojakian, Malloy’s chief of staff, said in a statement that, “A lot of people, including our office, have heard the concerns expressed by the families of Newtown victims, and are exploring ways to respect the families’ right to privacy while also respecting the public’s right to information.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (R-Fairfield), a potential candidate for governor, said in an emailed statement that he supports some form of legislation limiting the release of some Newtown shooting records. “No one has been a stronger advocate of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act than I have, but on behalf of the Sandy Hook families, and because this was an unprecedented tragedy, I support a one-time exception …” he said.
A spokesman for the Senate Democrats said leadership is “working to find a balance between the public’s right to information and protecting the privacy of the victims’ families.” It was unclear when the proposed legislation, which would bypass the traditional legislative process of a public hearing and committee reviews, would be taken up by the General Assembly.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, said in a phone interview Wednesday after the draft was released she was relieved in one regard that the bill proposal is “narrow and tailored specifically to Newtown,” and is a not “grand proposal to amend the entire FOI act and re-write the law with regards to police cases in general.”
Murphy indicated that legislators and state officials could have been more transparent in the process of putting the bill together. “We had been urging that in any legislation proposed that would affect the FOI act, just like any significant matter of public interest, that transparency would be the better course,” Murphy said.
While this bill is limited to only records from the Newtown shooting, Kane has said he would like to see a broader bill that would prevent the release of gruesome crime scene photos or videos, and emotional 911 call recordings.
Kane said “a great deal of information can become public or is required to be made public.” In an interview with WTNH News 8, Kane said “Certain 9-1-1 tapes, we’re asking be restricted; for example somebody being actually murdered during the course of a 9-1-1 call, which we’ve had over the years.” Murphy, of the FOI commission, said there is concern that this legislation, while narrow, would set a precedent for future, similar legislation.
“What’s the next incident that would lead us to legislate on just one incident?,” Murphy asked. “In general terms that is not a good way to do business either.”
This is not the first proposal to change open-records laws in light of the Dec. 14 shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. Newtown Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia has been pushing for legislation that would restrict public access to information on death certificates, arguing that such details can be misused, such as by identity thieves.
There are still two bills on the legislative calendars. One would impose a six-month waiting period before the public could obtain a recently deceased minor’s death certificate and a second bill would create a new “short” death certificate with limited information. But the fate of both proposals appears in doubt.
The proposed amendment released Wednesday would allow Aurelia to block the release of death certificates from the Newtown shooting, but would not impact other deaths as the previously proposed bills would. Murphy said legislation that would limit open records and freedom of information has become more prevalent as the years pass since the FOI act was approved in 1975. “I worry that as we get further and further away from when the FOI act passed way back in 1975 that we forget the purpose behind the FOI act and the need for it,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.