Lawmakers say they’re struggling with FOI proposal

State Capitol building in Hartford. (File)
State Capitol building in Hartford. (File)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Some Connecticut legislators said Monday they’re grappling with whether to support legislation proposed this year that would place new restrictions on the public release of information from homicides in an effort to protect victim privacy.

While acknowledging concerns voiced by the media and others about the ramifications of limiting access to certain 911 audio tapes concerning homicides, law enforcement recordings and additional crime scene photos, some lawmakers said they’ve also heard from family members of crime victims who voiced fears that information about their loved ones will be misused and sensationalized.

Rep. Roland Lemar said he has struggled with how to tell his constituents in New Haven who’ve lost loved ones to crime as to “why the ultimate good may be to allow those images to be utilized in some manner.”

Two legislative committees held simultaneous public hearings Monday on dueling bills before the General Assembly that would implement the recommendations of a task force, created last year to come up with ways to balance victim privacy concerns with the public’s right to know. The legislature formed the panel in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

It’s unclear whether enough support exists to pass some or all of the task force’s recommendations during this year’s legislative session, which adjourns May 7.

One of the legislature’s most powerful members, Senate President Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, appeared before both committees Monday and urged his colleagues to oppose the recommendations. While he agrees it’s appropriate to prevent the release of official images of a parent’s dead child, such as morgue or crime scene photos, Williams said 911 tapes and other official recordings involving homicides should be publicly accessible.

“Today the release of 911 calls has brought national attention to cases such as the ‘stand your ground’ killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and created discussions about racial profiling and prejudice in a case that had previously been ignored by the prosecution and the national media,” said Williams, adding how the ultimate release of the Sandy Hook 911 tapes revealed “important information about the effective response of school staff and first responders.”

Williams, an attorney and a former radio reporter, said the problem with prohibiting radio and TV news outlets from broadcasting the tapes is that news of a homicide will almost never be considered an invasion of privacy.

“I believe that a court will find that any homicide case, which of course involves the death of an individual and the response by public safety officials, will constitute a legitimate matter of public concern,” said Williams, adding how lengthy challenges would only delay the release of the information, decreasing its news value and potential for influencing public policy changes.

But Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, a task force member, contends there’s a compelling need to restrict access to the 911 tapes in particular.

“We’ve had callers calling and reporting that somebody’s breaking into their house, killing somebody in the house, and literally you can hear a murder going on in the background, and you can hear the caller hysterical,” he said.

The two bills both call for setting up a new system that would allow the public, including the media, to privately inspect certain materials from homicides, including crime scene photos, which the legislature barred from release last year.

People requesting copies of the information, however, would have to prove there is a strong public interest in its release. Both bills require a victim’s next of kin or legal representative to be notified of the request and have the opportunity to object if they consider it to be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. However, revised language would have a government entity make that decision.

Lawyers representing the victims’ families say their clients don’t like the legislation and oppose allowing anyone to even look at crime scene photos.

“It flies in the face of all that you just did last year,” the families said in a joint statement.

The families said they understand the interest in the public having access to public documents, but argued that the photos are not public records. Rather, they said, “They are pictures of our family members in their final horrific moments.”

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