George Floyd’s death at the hands, or rather knee, of a Minnesota police officer demonstrates the difficulty in holding law enforcement accountable.
Before this latest incident, the officer, Derek Chauvin, faced at least 17 misconduct complaints with the Minneapolis Police Department.
But accountability is nearly impossible without transparency, and too often police are able to block public access to information.
Many local departments here in Connecticut still don’t have body cameras for officers, despite the state offering financial help through grants. And many still don’t post on their website instructions for how the public can file complaints, even though the legislature mandated this be done years ago.
Some departments drag out requests for records, even denying requests for reasons that are obvious violations of the state Freedom of Information Act.
A state law passed in 2015 makes it clear that arrest records are public even when the defendant’s case is ongoing, but many departments still wrongly claim the “pending prosecution” exemption. The worst violator is the Connecticut State Police, whose affronts to transparency are too numerous to mention.
But the lowlights include a case last year when state police told a newspaper that dashboard camera footage of a particular incident didn’t exist. As if by a miracle, they discovered the video did in fact exist, and just in time for an FOI hearing.
During that hearing, it was found state police have violated the FOI Act at least 26 times in the last decade. That’s just the result of complaints actually filed. This unimpressive track record earned the state police the Society of Professional Journalists’ Black Hole Award in March, recognizing the agency as the least transparent in the country.
And the hits keep coming. The state police union contract that recently took effect limits public access to internal affairs reports and other records.
But now the state police are interpreting a protection for personal information — things like medical records — to cover the entire personnel file, a series of records that detail a trooper’s work history.
This is something the legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont need to change during the upcoming special session.
Protests have once again lain bare the vital need to address police brutality and accountability. That can only be accomplished with more transparency.
Mike Savino is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. He is also a reporter for WFSB.