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Police Oppose Open Records

Vermont law enforcement organizations are opposing legislative proposals to make police records more accessible to the public, arguing the changes would allow for unwarranted invasions of privacy of officers and members of the public.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, the head of the Vermont State Police troopers union said that his group was opposed to a plan to make available records of all closed criminal investigations, as well as to a watered down proposal that would only release records of investigations into allegations of police misconduct.

“We really have concerns about that,” said Michael O’Neil, president of the Vermont Troopers Association, told the committee yesterday. “We believe that police should be treated the same as any other citizen. It could be a false allegation — it happens fairly frequently with police officers. Often (people) will make a complaint just in an effort to deflect attention from their own behavior. I don’t believe any of them should ever be released if the officer involved did not commit a crime.”

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling argued that releasing records of closed investigations could have a chilling effect on citizens’ willingness to share information with police, and could embarrass citizens ensnared in sensitive situations that, while requiring a police response, are not of great public interest.

(Schirling acknowledged that the legislative proposals include exceptions for information deemed to be an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or germane to an ongoing criminal investigation, but he said he was still concerned about information coming into public view.)

“Government — especially police officers — has contact with Vermonters during a host of personal crises,” said Schirling, who told the committee that he was not taking a formal position on the proposed changes. “Access to records that do not result in prosecution will compromise the privacy interests and may compromise the safety of Vermonters in a host of ways.”

Despite the skepticism voiced by law enforcement yesterday, there appears to be some political momentum behind the proposals. A draft bill, bearing the name not of an individual lawmaker but rather the entire Judiciary Committee, released yesterday would essentially carry out a proposal that both Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union say would allow for the release of significantly more records.

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the commmittee’s influential chairman, voiced tentative support for the plan yesterday.

“I am inclined to support the governor’s proposal,” Sears said at one point, though he did voice reservations about privacy interests and other concerns.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to finalize its bill next week.

Vermont’s public records law, which generally says that citizens should have access to government records, contains a broad exemption for records of “detection and investigation of crime.”

That exemption has been often cited by law enforcement authorities 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)

Critics say the exemption allows law enforcement to operate without scrutiny and shrouds their operations in a level of secrecy that lawmakers never intended.

For example, Hartford police, with the support of the state Attorney General’s Office, refused to release files from three incidents in which officers were accused of using excessive force against residents who were later found to have committed no crime. Similar incidents have occurred across the state.

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 a Wilder man inside his home. Several legal experts who reviewed that file at the request of the Valley News said that the internal investigators appeared to soft-pedal the inquiry, highlighting information that supported the officers’ conduct and downplaying information that may have reflected poorly on the officrs.

“I think that the Constitution calls for all public officers to be accountable to the people,” Robert Appel, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, told the committee yesterday. “Police work for communities and should be accountable to communities. I don’t believe criminal investigation records should be forever sealed. It just doesn’t make sense.”

To address concerns about lack of transparency, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced his support for a law that would make all records of investigations public except in cases when officials could demonstrate a specific “harm” that their release would cause.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who has refused to release records of his office’s investigations into allegations of police wrongdoing, opposes to Shumlin’s proposal to release all investigation files, but he said he would support allowing for the release of investigations into police on-duty conduct.

“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 earlier this month.

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