Shumlin Signs Open Police Records Bill
Gov. Says Law Will Give Public Assurance of Vt.’s Transparency
Montpelier — Gov. Peter Shumlin yesterday signed into law a bill requiring police agencies across Vermont to release more information about their investigations, saying it will bring transparency to the operations of the law enforcement.
“The question is how do we deliver on my promise of insuring that we’re making government more transparent?” Shumlin said during a statehouse signing ceremony. “Government has nothing to hide, therefore, transparency should be king. What the bill does is give the public the assurance they will know what’s going on with (law enforcement) — they should.”
The new law, which goes into effect on July 1, requires police to release records of their investigations. Currently, police claim broad authority to keep most of those records sealed from the public, even when the cases are closed.
Shumlin proposed the bill at the beginning of the legislative session, and it changed little during debate. The governor was joined at the ceremony by Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who shepherded the bill through the Legislature.
The bill passed despite opposition from law enforcement agencies, who argued it would allow for invasions of privacy of both officers and the public, and Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Critics of the current law contend it allows the police to operate with little outside oversight of their work and has paved the way for the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to clear officers of criminal wrongdoing, without demonstrating to the public how it reached those conclusions.
For example, several legal experts who reviewed a file of a Vermont State Police investigation into Hartford police officers accused of assaulting a naked and semiconscious Wilder man have questioned the integrity of that investigation. They said State Police appeared to soft-pedal the inquiry, emphasizing facts that reflected favorably upon the actions of officers and down-playing evidence of possible wrongdoing.
(The review was done at the request of the Valley News, which obtained the file from independent sources — police refused to release the file.)
The bill alters Vermont’s public records law, which provides citizens access to government records, but contains a broad exemption for records of “detection and investigation of crime.”
That exemption has been often cited by law enforcement when refusing to release files from cases that have been closed, or never resulted in criminal charges. Some records of cases that result in charges are usually included in public court files.
For example, authorities have refused to release a file of an incident — which has long since been closed — in which a Shady Lawn Motel resident accused a Hartford police officer of assaulting her. Sorrell cleared the officer of wrongdoing, despite eye-witness claims that the officer slammed the woman to the ground without provocation.
During the legislative debate, Sorrell testified in opposition to Shumlin’s proposal to release all investigation files, but said he supported the release of investigations into police on-duty conduct.
The law approved yesterday says that police records are generally public, absent a specific finding of “harm” that their release would cause harm. 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 bill was pushed by media organizations and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union: Shumlin gave Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert the pen he used to sign the bill.
“Trust is the most important weapon police have,” Gilbert said.
Also yesterday, Shumlin signed a law that will for the first time regulate police use of Automatic License Plate readers, which scan thousands of license plates an hour, allowing police to check if cars are associated with arrest warrants, and pools information into a statewide database that federal authorities can also access, to pinpoint the drivers.
Police, who introduced the devices without legislative approval and little public notice in 2008, keep the data for four years, but the law Shumlin signed will require law enforcement to dispose of the potentially sensitive information after 18 months.
More than 30 law enforcement agencies across the state have deployed the readers in recent years, including police in Hartford and Springfield, Vt., and the sheriff’s departments in Windsor and Orange counties.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.