Hugh McQuaid photo
James Smith, president of the Council for Freedom of Information and Colleen Murphy, director of the Freedom of Information Commission (Hugh McQuaid photo)

A proposal adopted Tuesday during the lengthy final meeting of a panel on privacy and public disclosure asks the legislature to approve policies to allow residents to inspect — but not copy — law enforcement records of homicides.

The recommendation applies to photographs and videos depicting homicide victims as well as recordings of 911 calls and other police communications describing their bodies.

Although the proposal would create a process for a resident to petition the public release of the records, it takes the significant step of shifting the burden of justifying such a release onto the person requesting them. Currently, the burden to prove a document should not be disclosed is on the public agency.

The recommendation was approved in a divided vote during the final meeting of a legislative task force. The group met for close to eight hours Tuesday in the Legislative Office Building, where most other activities were cancelled because of the weather.

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 task force, which is made up of of both open government and victim advocates, has had a difficult time reaching consensus since it began meeting in August. Although the panel approved the core recommendation in a 14-3 vote, it took hours of various iterations and heated debate to arrive at the vote.

At one point in the meeting, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, described a proposal the group was considering as “the wholesale destruction of Freedom of Information.”

Smith, who has voiced concerns from the beginning that the group as weighted too heavily in favor of reducing public access to information, was not happy with the final recommendation, either. He called it “a sad day for the peoples’ right to know.”

“It shifts the burden from the government to the people. Forever, since 1975, the burden has been on the government to say ‘here’s why you can’t have it.’ The assumption is the information should be there. So it’s a huge new restrictive era in Connecticut FOI,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid photo
State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Other task members saw the proposal as a compromise, which preserved the public’s ability to inspect law enforcement documents. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he felt the group struck a fair balance between victim privacy and public disclosure.

“As we’ve said all along, this is a hard, hard issue. There are serious interests on both sides. It was a hard balance to strike and, yeah, the process was a little hard to follow,” he said. “The important thing is with 911 tapes and the photographs, it gives people the right to look.”

The proposal will need to be considered next year by the legislature where its fate is less than certain. In its only unanimous vote, the task force asked lawmakers to consider the fiscal impact their recommendation will have on the agencies that it charges with acting as a venue for the public viewing of records. In most cases, this will be state and municipal police departments.

Emergency Protection and Public Protection Commissioner Reuben Bradford asked the panel to recommend considering additional appropriations for the State Police.

“I’ve got one reservation. This places an undue burden on my agency and there needs to be some kind of fiscal note with this dealing with appropriations . . . This really does force a whole lot of work on my agency that is already over-tasked,” he said.

The panel also recommended the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee take a more detailed look at issues facing crime victims.