A chairman of a state panel tasked with balancing victim privacy and public transparency gave emotional and personal testimony Wednesday in favor of restricting disclosure of some law enforcement records.
The testimony came from state Rep. Angel Arce, one of two chairmen on a task force to weigh the interests of crime victims and their families against the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The group was created as part of a new law restricting the release of some police records pertaining to homicide victims and victims who are children.
The bill was passed by lawmakers after families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting appealed to the legislature to stop the release of records pertaining to the Dec. 14 incident. The law has been described as a “stopgap” measure passed while the investigation into the shooting is ongoing. The task force is meant to inform more permanent legislative action on the issue.
Arce, a Hartford Democrat, was named to the group by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey in part based on his unique personal experiences. In 2008, his father was paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident on Park Street in Hartford. He later died from his injuries. The incident was captured in video footage and made national news after the video was released.
Although the panel has met frequently for more than a month, Arce had, up until Wednesday, said little on the subject of his own experiences. However, in a presentation to the task force he opened up on the emotional impact of both the public broadcast of the video and the subsequent news coverage of his family’s story following the accident.
Arce was critical of the news media, saying some reporters are “cold-hearted people” who sometimes victimize families. He addressed the group as images of his father’s accident were displayed on a screen behind him. He did not turn to look at the images and relied on a legislative aide to click through the black-and-white pictures while he spoke.
“Yesterday, I had to see those pictures for the first time in four years and I couldn’t sleep last night. The images stood in my mind and reminded me of the day that this happened,” he said.
Later, he left the hearing room while aides played for the group the video of the accident. Arce said his family was still recovering from the consequences of the release of his father’s video. The footage was broadcast without any warning or courtesy call to the family, he said.
“Until this day four years later, my father’s video is still shown on TV. It’s not easy for me, it’s not easy for my family. We keep getting reminded, over and over again,” he said. “. . . With what my family’s been through, I do not want to see the families from Sandy Hook or anyone in the state of Connecticut go through it. We still suffer from it.”
At times in the past, Arce has been less critical of the release of the video. Since his father’s accident, he has advocated for legislation that would allow cities to install traffic enforcement cameras at major intersections. Although lawmakers have not approved the concept, Arce has said the cameras would encourage drivers to slow down, which would make city streets safer.
“It was because of the cameras on Park Street that we were able to apprehend the person that killed my father . . . As soon as they showed that video, people started calling. They gave us the information on who it was,” Arce said last year.
Asked Wednesday about the comments, Arce downplayed the role the video played in the apprehension of the driver.
“Honestly, the video didn’t really do anything. But I’ll tell you what it did do, it put a lot of pain in my family. It took two years to get my mother out of depression. No one notified us. It caught us by surprise,” he said
James Smith, a member of the task force and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said that cooperation from the news media often helps law enforcement officials identify offenders.
“The press and the police work together to help find those responsible for crimes,” Smith said. “In terms of first responders, reporters are first responders and we have ethical guidelines . . . We try to show respect, but you ask to talk to the family so that crime victims aren’t statistics. They become human beings.”
The task force is charged with making recommendations to the legislature by January. Arce said he would continue to urge the group to recommend legislation that would shield families from having records involving their loved ones released.
“This is something that I support and as long as I’m standing on two feet, I will fight to protect privacy for those families,” he said.