Frustrations bubbled to the surface Wednesday during a meeting of a task force weighing victim privacy against public disclosure laws with members on both sides of the debate seemingly entrenched in their positions.
The panel was created under a hastily-passed law intended to prevent the disclosure of crime scene photographs and certain audio recordings collected by police following the Sandy Hook shooting and other homicides.
The law never received a public hearing but it created the group — made up of both open government and victim advocates — to weigh the issues and make recommendations to the legislature by January. But it’s been slow going.
The core of the group’s mission is to advise the legislature on the contentious issues of public access to crime photographs containing the bodies of homicide victims and audio recordings describing those victims. However, after several months of meetings, the task force has yet to substantially tackle those subjects.
After debating procedural and scheduling issues for more than an hour Wednesday, the group returned to a subject that it debated and ultimately tabled last month: whether to endorse a five-word provision in the law that prevents the disclosure of the identities of minor witnesses.
The task force ended up tabling the issue a for second time Wednesday, but not before a tie vote on a failed attempt to modify the provision and a tangled procedural debate that had some members of the group clearly frustrated.
“Personally, I am distressed,” said Don DeCesare, a general manager of a radio station who serves as one of the group’s two chairman. DeCesare said that lawmakers on the panel had acknowledged they had not spent much time passing the provision.
“We have spent an enormous amount of time on these five words and in that time we haven’t moved a [expletive] millimeter. Everybody is bunkered into five words that we can’t even figure out how they got here,” DeCesare said. “. . . At some point, folks, we need to move. It would be really gracious if we could find a way to move towards each other.”
But the gridlock over that provision, which some members insist is redundant, illustrates the basic philosophical divide present among members of the group. Generally, task force members seem to fall into one of two camps. One side would like to see the new disclosure exemption law affirmed or expanded. The other side would like to see it scaled back or repealed.
Jodie Mozdzer Gil, an online journalist and president of the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, offered a motion to recommend scaling back the provision that would prevent the disclosure of the names of minor witnesses.
Under her proposal, the names of witnesses who are 13 years old or younger would be exempt from disclosure, but their identities would again be eligible for disclosure when they turn 18.
“If I was locked into a position I would have said ‘Let’s strike [the provision] altogether,’ because that’s my personal viewpoint,” she said. “I’m trying to come up with some wording we can all talk about and maybe come to some common ground in the middle.”
However, Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, defended the provision, saying it should apply to everyone under 18. He said adult witnesses in cities are often reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisal. Fasano said the exemption will help young witnesses come forward without jeopardizing their safety.
“To hell with releasing [their names] when they’re 14 if [withholding] it will save the kid’s life on the corner . . . If that’s going to protect somebody, damn it, I’m for it. That’s where I’m coming from. If you consider that to be a locked-in position, I appreciate it,” Fasano said. “But I can not get above what I believe is a rock-solid argument for protecting people in our neighborhoods.”
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, suggested members of the task force were putting too much stock in how much impact changing the disclosure law could have on the evils of society. She said they were making the disclosure law both the “scapegoat” and the “elixir.”
“I would posit that neither is true. We’ve had the law on the books for many, many years and I haven’t heard of an example where there’s been a disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act that lead to something bad happening to a minor,” Murphy said.
As the meeting stretched into its third hour, state Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose tried for the second time in the past few meetings to “call the question” on the discussion. It’s a rarely used legislative motion designed to end debate on a topic and move directly to a vote. After some debate, the task force members who were at the meeting cast votes on Mozdzer Gil’s proposal. They tied 7-7, meaning the motion failed.