It never ceases to amaze me how government officials will behave when under pressure from those who have been victims of tragedies — especially gruesome, high-profile murders such as those that occurred in Newtown last December.
After witnessing the behavior of the General Assembly earlier this year, I’m convinced that it’s a reflex action of lawmakers to pass legislation that does nothing to address the crime itself, but everything to make victims feel better.
To wit, the first item the General Assembly took up in January was a sweeping gun-control bill that, while well intentioned, would have done little to prevent the massacre of 26 young people and educators a month earlier. It did, however, make us all feel good that we had done something.
But more troubling was the move to amend Connecticut’s strong freedom-of-information laws — laws that really were a model for the rest of the nation — to exempt from public release any crime-scene photo depicting a murder victim. So proud were lawmakers of the bipartisan bill that they passed it in the wee hours of the morning less than a day before the close of the legislative session in June.
Though prosecutors assure us that it’s coming soon, the State Police report of the incident still hasn’t been released a full nine months after the crime.
Interestingly, State Police officials such as Col. Danny Stebbens had no problem sharing details of the massacre with attendees at police conferences held out-of-state earlier this year. The epidemic of loose lips prompted Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who will issue the final investigative report on the crime whenever he gets around to it, to order police to stop discussing details of the mass shooting at conferences.
And the foot-dragging also extends to the Newtown officials who resisted releasing the school records of the 20-year-old shooter. Shockingly, a representative from the office of Attorney General George Jepsen told the Freedom of Information Commission at a hearing that public release of the Lanza records “can cause a lot of people to stop taking their medications.” Might the release of Adam Lanza’s records also help social workers and school officials recognize similar traits in their students and get them the help they need before they harm someone?
Much to its credit, Jepsen’s office did get involved when Newtown school officials refused to release Lanza’s records to the state Child Advocate’s office, which was conducting its own investigation into the tragedy. Earlier this week, a state superior court judge ordered the Newtown Public School District to comply with a subpoena for the records.
Much to the dismay of freedom-of-information advocates, for months the Newtown Town Clerk had refused to release death certificates of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims. The assistant town clerk had even acknowledged in written testimony before the General Assembly that “according to current law, these death certificates are public information.”
Under intense pressure, the town clerk finally relented and released the certificates, bringing a merciful end to six months of obstruction and lawbreaking. Predictably, a state representative from Newtown responded to the controversy by introducing legislation that would restrict public access to children’s death certificates. Thankfully, he failed.
The most recent Newtown FOI controversy concerns the refusal thus far of local officials to release recordings of 911 calls made that fateful day at the school — a defiance rightly judged by an FOI Commission hearing officer to be against the law. An attorney from the Victim Advocates Office wondered aloud at a recent public meeting whether those seeking the recordings were doing so out of a desire for government accountability or morbid curiosity.
Who cares what the motive is in seeking the righteous release of public information? The law and the law alone should determine the appropriateness of the request. Call me naive, but you would think public officials, of all people, would understand that simple concept.