Vt. Police Records Bill Advances

Saturday, May 04, 2013
Montpelier — A bill that would require police to release records of their investigations unanimously passed a House committee and now heads to the full House, perhaps as soon as next week.

Six weeks after the Vermont Senate approved the bill, proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, the initiative to make police investigations more transparent emerged from the House Judiciary Committee in a slightly amended form. The committee’s approval means the bill has a chance of reaching Shumlin’s desk by the end of the session, though its fate in the House is uncertain.

The Judiciary Committee altered the bill to add specific protections to keep sealed the names of victims and witnesses of crimes. Earlier versions of the bill required officials to conduct a test that would balance the privacy rights of victims and witnesses against the public’s right to information, but the new language includes more concrete protections.

In an interview, Allen Gilbert, executive director for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the proposal’s most vocal champion, said the bill represents progress from the current standard, in which police usually assert a blanket privilege to keep the records of all investigations sealed.

Critics contend that the current law allows police to operate with little oversight, and leads to officials inside the Vermont Attorney General’s Office clearing officers of criminal wrongdoing without showing the public how they reached those conclusions.

“It’s a significant improvement over the current standard of, ‘If it’s a criminal investigation, you can’t have it,” Gilbert said yesterday.

Gilbert said he believed the additional protections for victims and witnesses were “unnecessary,” but did not meaningfully weaken the proposed law’s ability to compel police to release records at the public’s request.

Law enforcement officials testified against the bill during the legislative session.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, citing three incidents of Hartford police using force against unarmed citizens, has testified in support of releasing records of police investigations into police wrongdoing. At the same time, Sorrell opposes the release of records on investigations of civilians.

Sorrell has repeatedly declined to release records of investigations his office supervised into allegations of police misconduct in recent years.

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 been routinely 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.

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

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