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Vt. Lawmakers Pass Police Records Bill

Montpelier — Vermont lawmakers have approved a bill requiring police to release records of their investigations, handing a significant victory to open-government advocates who have long criticized law enforcement for operating with little transparency.

The bill, proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, was passed by lawmakers in a voice vote hours before they adjourned Tuesday, and should upend law enforcement’s practice of asserting a blanket authority to keep records of all their investigations sealed if they wish.

“I’m thrilled that the legislature approved our records bill,” Shumlin said in an interview yesterday. “This is really important, and I feel strongly that the government should be as transparent as it is good.”

The governor said he planned to sign the bill into law. It would go into effect in July.

The bill, little changed from the version Shumlin proposed at the beginning of the session, passed despite opposition from law enforcement agencies, and, in part, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who argued the bill would allow for invasions of privacy of both officers and the public.

Critics of the current law say it allows the police to operate with little public oversight of their work and has allowed the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to clear officers of criminal wrongdoing without showing the public how they reached those conclusions.

For example, several legal experts who, at the request of the Valley News, reviewed a file of a Vermont State Police investigation into Hartford police officers accused of assaulting a naked and semiconscious Wilder man, said that State Police appeared to soft-pedal the inquiry, emphasizing facts that reflected favorably upon the actions of police officers and down-playing evidence of possible wrongdoing. (The Valley News obtained the file from independent sources — police refused to release the file.)

“I think there has been frustration that in cases where transparency would resolve more questions than are (answered) under our current system,” Shumlin said yesterday, while not commenting on any specific incidents. “The public gets frustrated, and I think legislators listened.”

The new law says that police records are generally public, absent a specific finding of “harm” that their release would cause, such as jeopardizing an ongoing investigation. That would bring Vermont law in line with federal standards for releasing law enforcement documents. The bill included stipulations allowing the names of witnesses and victims of crimes to be withheld, and says records can be withheld if they “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, with the support of media groups, was the primary backer of the bill.

“We’re really glad the bill passed,” Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert said in an interview yesterday. “I think it’s good for both the public and police. For the public, the greater the transparency about police the better, and for police, transparency is also good, because it leads to accountability and professionalism.”

The bill alters Vermont’s public records law, which generally says that citizens are allowed access to government records, but contains a broad exemption for records of “detection and investigation of crime.”

That exemption has been often cited by police when refusing to turn over — to journalists, open-government groups and the public — files from cases that have been closed, or never resulted in criminal charges. (Records of cases that result in charges are included in public court files.)

Sorrell, who has repeatedly refused to release records of his office’s investigations into allegations of police wrongdoing, opposed Shumlin’s proposal to release all investigation files, but said he supported the release of investigations into police on-duty conduct.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday, but one of his top deputies, Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire, said he accepted lawmakers’ decision.

“The Legislature has made a policy decision, and that’s going to be the law in Vermont now,” Maguire said. “We will obviously comply with that.”

Sorrell tried to convince legislators to attach a last-minute amendment to the bill, which would have allowed him to notify the public of instances when he convened a grand jury to indict an officer accused of wrongdoing, but the grand jury declined to issue an indictment.

Grand juries are rarely used in Vermont — prosecutors almost always file charges without going before a citizen body. However, in the rare instances in which they are convened, grand jury deliberations are secret. But Sorrell’s proposal was not included in the final bill.

Maguire said there have been occasions when the Vermont Attorney General’s Office has gone before a grand jury seeking an indictment of a police officer of wrongdoing.

“That was an important component for us,” Maguire said. “We felt that was an important piece in terms of accountability and transparency.”

Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said he welcomed the bill.

“We worked a lot on the bill from the beginning,” Flynn said. “It balances the privacy interests of the individual with the right of the public to know what law enforcement is doing.”

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