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Vermont Attorney General: Open Police Records

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell answers a question during a March 2012 interview. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo)

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell answers a question during a March 2012 interview. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo)

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, citing three incidents of Hartford police using force against unarmed citizens, told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that he favors changing the law to allow public release of records of investigations into police wrongdoing.

Sorrell, who has repeatedly refused to release records of such investigations, explained the reason for his change during the first day of hearings held by the committee to hear proposals for amending the law that would allow access to records that have been traditionally kept secret by police.

“To the extent that there’s a concern that police do not adequately investigate other police and that some prosecutors have a double standard and will prosecute a private citizen under a fact pattern and not a police officer under the same fact pattern ... these case files would all be (released),” Sorrell told the committee. “Under my proposal, all three of those (Hartford) cases would be totally open.”

However, Sorrell’s plan would be more restrictive than two other proposed revisions of Vermont’s public records law, one backed by civil liberties advocates and the other by Gov. Peter Shumlin, that the committee considered yesterday.

Committee members have voiced general support for making more police records transparent, although how far they are willing to go remains unclear. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said that he is intent on action, but not ready to decide specific changes.

“It’s my goal to get a bill out of here,” Sears said. “I have no idea how I would vote. I know I do want to change how it is today, but I want to hear (more) testimony.”

The proposal will likely be sent to the Senate Government Operations Committee after it leaves the Judiciary Committee, before going before the entire body, Sears said in an interview after the hearing.

Vermont’s public records law, which generally allows citizens to access government records, contains an exemption for records of “detection and investigation of crime.”

That exemption has routinely been invoked by law enforcement authorities when refusing to turn over — to journalists and open-government groups — files from cases that have been closed, or never resulted in criminal charges. For example, Hartford police, with the support of Sorrell’s office, refused to release files from three incidents in which officers were accused of using excessive force against citizens who were later found to have committed no crime.

In addition, the Vermont State Police and Sorrell have refused to release records of their investigations that resulted in the Hartford officers being cleared of criminal misconduct in three separate incidents: officers allegedly slammed to the ground a woman who called for help at the Shady Lawn Motel, pulled a Quechee man from his home during a DUI investigation, and pepper-sprayed and beat a naked, unresponsive Wilder man inside his own home when responding to an erroneous report of a burglary.

And that has led to some criticism that has captured lawmakers’ interest.

Critics say the current law allows law enforcement to operate with little oversight, and results in the Vermont Attorney General’s Office clearing officers of criminal wrongdoing without showing the public how they reached those conclusions.

The Valley News was able to obtain, after a public records request was denied, an Attorney General’s Office file of an investigation into Hartford police officers accused of assaulting the Wilder man. Several legal experts who reviewed that file at the request of the Valley News said that investigators appeared to soft-pedal the inquiry and spotlight only facts that made the Hartford police officers look good.

Sorrell yesterday did not explain to lawmakers why he now favors releasing investigations that he had previously kept under seal, and could not be reached for comment immediately after the hearing.

Yesterday’s Judiciary Committee hearing came days after Shumlin swung his support behind a plan to increase police “accountability” by making records of criminal investigations public except in cases when officials could demonstrate a specific “harm” that their release would cause. That would bring Vermont law in line with federal laws. Under the current state law, police generally assert a blanket right to keep the records sealed.

A proposal by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union would go further, and eliminate language that would allow police to withhold documents by claiming they represented an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Sorrell’s idea is the most restrictive — he would only loosen the law for investigations of police wrongdoing while on the job. All other police records would remain confidential.

“Police hold more immediate, direct power over individuals than any other government official,” Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert said. “We have a police records exemption that is really overzealous in its secrecy. It really doesn’t benefit either the public or police. It really is extreme. How can people trust what police are doing if they can’t even see records of what happened five, ten, 20 years ago?”

The Department of Public Safety, which includes the Vermont State Police and is part of the executive branch, has lined up behind Shumlin’s proposal. The agency received more than 1,300 public records requests last year, DPS attorney Rosemary Gretkowski told the committee, more than half of all requests filed with state agencies. Roughly 25 to 50 are bigger, more complex requests that are time consuming for agency officials to fulfill.

“I think the (federal) model does a good job of balancing the interests of the people knowing what’s going on with law enforcement and balancing that to protect prosecutions ... and privacy rights,” Gretkowski said.

Sorrell disagreed, saying that records from investigations into suicides, or intimate details of the sex lives of murder victims and their diaries, could be released if the law was rewritten.

However, proposals floated by Shumlin and the ACLU provide protections for privacy that would appear to address those concerns. And Sears noted that he has not heard of such problems occurring in the roughly 20 states that adapted the federal standard that Shumlin is proposing.

“I haven’t heard of problems in the states where the federal standard is available,” Sears said. “I’d like to see from other states what they may have encountered.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.