Christine Stuart photo

Senate President Donald Williams voiced strong opposition Monday to legislation restricting public access to recordings of 911 calls, calling the bill “unnecessary,” “counterproductive,” and “destructive.”

Williams was among the first to testify on the proposal Monday afternoon as two separate legislative committees simultaneously convened public hearings on recommendations from a task force to weigh the privacy of crime victims against the public’s right to open government.

“This legislation is unnecessary. It is not only counterproductive, it’s destructive,” Williams said. “. . . It will result in less transparency in our criminal justice system, less attention paid to the needs of families in poor, high crime neighborhoods, and will make it harder to discover flaws in our criminal justice system and bring about effective reform.”

The recommendations were drafted by a group created last year by legislation passed to shield family members of the Sandy Hook shooting victims from the disclosure of some public documents related to the incident.

After months of contentious meetings, the task force approved recommendations that would, among other things, prevent the release of records like 911 recordings under the Freedom of Information Act and place the burden of justifying the records’ release on the person requesting them.

Williams, who has the authority to determine which bills are raised in the Senate for a vote,  has previously voiced concerns about the aspects of the task force report relating to restricting access to 911 recordings.

On Monday, he also spoke against a provision which would apply a federal definition of “invasion of privacy” to the Connecticut disclosure law. Applying the federal standard over the state’s longstanding standard will make it more likely that requests to release law enforcement records will be denied based on privacy concerns.

“This section, when fully understood, is an affront to just about everyone,” he said. “. . . Nothing else in this proposed language would indicate that we should be looking to other authorities than those that interpret Connecticut law.”

Williams said he believes that records pertaining to any homicide case will be a legitimate matter of public concern and therefore should be released. However, he said that release of pictures depicting deceased children are a “clear exception” to that policy. “That right to privacy has been upheld,” he said. 

As Williams was opposing the bill before the Government Administration and Elections Committee, the two chairmen of the task force that crafted the recommendations were speaking in favor of it before the Judiciary Committee.

Christine Stuart photo

“The privacy concerns the task force addressed are real,” Rep. Angel Arce, one of the two chairmen, said. “. . . Many families and survivors have already been subject to harassment and intimidation by a number of cruel lowlifes.”

In written testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee, the 26 families of Sandy Hook victims opposed the recommendations because they feel the bill scales back some of the exemptions lawmakers approved for them when they passed the bill creating the task force last year.

The task force recommendations permit members of the public to inspect pictures and other law enforcement records and petition government agencies to release those documents. The families said that change “flies in the face” of the bill passed last year.

“Under the raised bill, upon passage, anyone could look through the photographs taken inside Sandy Hook School on Dec. 14, 2012,” they wrote. “We understand the interest of the public in having access to public documents . . . However, to us and the families of all homicide victims, these are not public records — they are pictures of our family members in their horrific final moments.”

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who also served on the task force, said the group anguished over finding a suitable balance between privacy and public disclosure. He told the Judiciary Committee that other states use the federal standard for deciding what constitutes an invasion of privacy.

“This is a good, fair compromise. It’s a compromise between two deep-seated, core issues that we have in the state of Connecticut today and I really do think it’s a very fair one,” he said.

Meanwhile in the Government Administration and Elections Committee, James Smith, another task force member and former newspaper editor, opposed the legislation. He said the group he served on should not have been trying to balance open government against the privacy of victims.

“This is the wrong balancing test. The traditional and still-available remedies to an invasion of privacy are lawsuits,” he said. “. . . The only balancing test for [Freedom of Information] should be the need for government secrecy and the people’s right to know what [their] government is doing.”

Rather than make it a crime to copy some records without permission, as the bill proposes, Smith said the legislature should consider making it a crime for government officials to illegally withhold public documents.

“Connecticut should not adopt the federal unwarranted invasion of privacy standard, making it easier to keep information secret, and shifting the burden of proof from the government to the people,” he said.