Home » Uncategorized » Without Freedom of Information, Cop Body Cams and Other Important Things, Like Democracy, Will Falter

Without Freedom of Information, Cop Body Cams and Other Important Things, Like Democracy, Will Falter

The idea of body cameras for police officers recently gained popularity with power after the brutal deaths of people at the hands of police.

Even conservative Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra has expressed an interest in body cameras.

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However, body cameras will be an ineffective tool of police restraint if the public does not have ready access to their images after a controversial police interaction. A number of recent trends demonstrate that government transparency is under attack. Body cameras are lip service to this.

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For body cameras to prevent police brutality, the City of Hartford has to do better than simply negotiate with the police union to create a body camera policy for police officers.

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At least one officer in New Mexico figured out how to handle body cameras: it has conveniently broken on all occasions when he has been involved in questionable excessive use of force cases. While Albuquerque fired Officer Jeremy Dear, his termination will not bring back the 19-year-old girl he shot when the camera “malfunctioned.”

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Videos alone won’t bring justice. We watched Eric Garner suffocate under an illegal police choke hold. Much like the beating of Rodney King, this clip violated our common dignity, but it was impotent to force the judicial branch to reign in human rights abuses by executive branch police power.

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Adding to that issue is the spate of decisions by Connecticut courts to close the curtain on the sunshine of government transparency. This frightening trajectory – more than dishonest cops – demolishes the usefulness of body cameras.

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In July 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court in Commissioner of Public Safety v. Freedom of Information Commission (No. 19047, dated July 15, 2014) held police departments can withhold anything other than arrest reports from Freedom of Information Act requests during the pendency of a criminal case.

A client of mine recently suffered arrest in Hartford. Through the Freedom of Information Act, I asked for the dashboard videos of the incident.

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Municipalities have 30 days to respond to FOIA requests. After I prodded HPD on the 29th day, HPD responded it was withholding the dashboard camera videos during the pendency of the criminal case.

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If the videos did not contradict the police report (surprise, surprise), why wouldn’t the City turn them over immediately? Luckily, as an attorney, I can request discovery in court and demand the state turn over these videos.

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Imagine the only video of the tasering of Luis Anglero was not from a citizen cellphone, but on a cop body cam. The narrative of Mr. Anglero’s criminal case would have been told only from the police perspective, and they could have withheld the video from the public until Mr. Anglero was prosecuted.

Without the video, the prosecution would not have dropped the spurious charges against Mr. Anglero.

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But, you argue, Mr. Anglero’s lawyer would have gotten the video through discovery. Yet the court could easily enforce a gag order and prevent the release of the body cam video to the press as prejudicial to the police, and potentially tainting the jury pool.

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Connecticut courts seem hostile to the release of information. Consider the prior restraint case that reporter Isaac Avilucea just endured. Not since the Pentagon Papers has a court seriously entertained censoring the press.

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But here, in Connecticut, Judge Stephen Frazzini prevented Avilucea from watching his own First Amendment lawyer, the estimable Daniel Klau, argue for the Connecticut Law Tribune’s ability to publish a story about a judicial proceeding.

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Judge Frazzini prevented publication of the story. A few days later, after mounting national pressure from the embarrassment of it all, the court relented. But Frazzini even entertaining prior restraint itself will have a tremendous chilling effect.

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Even worse, to me, was the CT Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that the University of Connecticut Foundation is exempt from Freedom of Information Act Requests. Why can’t we know what the fundraising arm of the state’s flagship public university does? Hogwash.

The decision this summer by the CT Supremes, though, takes the cake in terms of slicing another dagger into the heart of the FOIA.

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Gov. Malloy’s administration hostility to FOIA is evidenced by his sandwiching of all government oversight agencies like SEEC and FOIA into one agency. But one would hope the separate and co-equal branch of government, the courts, would check this executive overreach.

Nope.

Mayor Segarra’s failure to comment on this nuance when pitching cop body cams should not surprise. I doubt Corporation Counsel has briefed him, even though someone clearly briefed Chief James Rovella to employ the exception.

Nor is the Hartford Courant going to explore this wrinkle. The Courant has never been good at covering the State Supreme Court, and now, with the Courant’s paltry news staff, it will not suddenly strengthen that beat.

Last week, I lamented the sad demise of the Courant as an institution of journalistic integrity. Its failure to cover meat and potatoes local news like planning and zoning harms the community.

I know, many will say I am given to conspiracy, but someone recently suggested to me the Courant is so in the bag for the Mayor, it will squash local reporting detrimental to his re-election.

Hilda Muñoz’s departure from the Courant to the Mayor’s press office does not help that perception. What deepens the intrigue is my knowledge of the Courant sitting on scoops that hurt the Mayor.

Why would the Courant’s city desk fail to write about the Meyers’ report? Recall how the consultant’s examination devastated the Mayor’s Department of Public Works under Kevin Burnham and Rhonda Carroll, showing, page by page, ineptitude by ineptitude.

The Courant’s city staff had the Meyers’ document a week before other news outlets, but never reported on it. NBC-30 had it for a day or two and broke the story, forcing the Courant editorial board to opine about the consultant’s damaging conclusions, and tip its hand to NBC-30 for breaking the story.

With this column, I never expect the Courant to mention me again. The line between corruption and incompetence is blurry, and if I were a City desk reporter, I would not want to even be in the ballpark of either. How many other scoops has the Courant’s City Desk sat on?

Yet evidence illustrates a pattern at the Courant. Does Courant brass want Mayor Segarra to win another term, to insure their cheerleading for Stadium Boondoggle was not a strikeout?

If so, memo to the oldest newspaper in the country: XYZ PDQ. We’re on to you, and we want a fair election, not overshadowed by your whoring for corporate capitalism and the police state.

Most importantly, this failure of the fourth estate – the final check and balance on the three branches of our republic – compounded by the slow closing of open government by the courts, does not bode well for the future of self-governance in Connecticut.

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