Category Archives: Public Safety

Prosecutors Say Order to Release 911 Tapes from Newtown Could Aid Criminals

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

State prosecutors and transparency advocates will square off next week as the state Freedom of Information Commission considers a proposed order to release tapes of 911 calls made during the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

In advance of the Sept. 25 hearing, Danbury States Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III has filed a brief saying the proposed order misinterprets state law and, if upheld, could be a boon to criminals trying to figure out what evidence investigators have collected.

Sedensky argues that the tapes are protected from disclosure by laws related to investigations of child abuse, and by exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act covering records to be used in a future law-enforcement action. Kathleen K. Ross, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Commission, rejected those arguments during a hearing in June.

The full commission typically upholds the decisions of its hearing officers, but Sedensky will have an opportunity next Wednesday to try to persuade them to reject Ross’s proposed order. Either way, the matter may not be settled for a while. Whoever loses next Wednesday can appeal the commission’s order to Superior Court.

Our full story on Sedensky’s legal brief is here. And the full document can be read below.

Download (PDF, 1.31MB)

FOI Lawyer Chastises Newtown, State Prosecutors over 911 Calls

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As we reported in this morning’s paper, a hearing officer for the state’s Freedom of Information Commission has issued a preliminary ruling finding that Newtown police illegally withheld publicNPD Badge access to 911 calls made from inside Sandy Hook Elementary School during the Dec. 14 attack.

The hearing officer, Kathleen K. Ross, chastised Newtown for failing to evaluate whether the records were exempt from disclosure, instead deferring to state prosecutors who instructed the town not to release the tapes.

At a commission hearing in June, nearly six months after the Associated Press sought access to the tapes, Newtown and state officials argued that the recordings should not be released, citing a variety of exemptions, including a claim that releasing the tapes would prejudice a prospective law-enforcement action. Ross rejected all of those assertions, setting up a Sept. 25 hearing at which the full commission will decide whether to adopt Ross’s report.

Lawyers for the state Division of Criminal Justice will be back at the commission’s offices, making the case for why the tapes should not be released. And even if the commission upholds the hearing officer’s report – as they usually do – the state could appeal that decision to Superior Court, a step that would add months if not years to the resolution of the matter.

The full hearing officer’s report appears below.

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You Want Those Public Records? That’ll Be $16 Million Please.

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Non-profits, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought access to public records about tax-lien sales that were costing residents of Fulton County millions of dollars, officials said the newspaper could have the data – for a fee.

That fee? $16.2 million.

It was the latest in a string of roadblocks county officials had erected in hopes of avoiding scrutiny of the costly deals, and it persisted until the state attorney general threatened to join the newspaper in suing the county pols.

That snubbing of Georgia’s freedom-of-information laws earned Fulton County a finalist spot – but not the grand prize – in the inaugural “Golden Padlock” award from the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partly tongue-in-cheek award is given in recognition of “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.”

As bad as the county tax commissioner’s actions were deemed to be, IRE gave the top prize to the U.S. Border Patrol for what it called stonewalling by the federal agency in response to requests for information about deadly shootings by agents.  “The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE president David Cay Johnston said in a press release.

Three other agencies earned finalist spots:

    • JobsOhio, a non-profit economic development agency that replaced the Ohio Department of Development, and which was made exempt from most public-records laws despite being established with public money and having access to a huge pool of assets from the state’s control of liquor profits.
    • New Jersey Transit, which responded to a request for the agency’s hurricane preparedness plan by providing a document entirely blacked out except for the title.
    • The Centers for Disease Control, for its slow response to requests for information on Lyme Disease, including one case in which a requester was made to wait more than five years for records.

The reporters’ group also inducted the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder into its “Hall of Shame” for what it called the “Orwellian practice of monitoring journalists’ phone records in pursuit of whistleblowers.”

In the Newtown Clerk’s Office, a Dishonorable End to Six Months of Lawlessness

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?

Would you openly defy the law?

Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?

Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?

Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.

This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.

As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]

That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading

Society of Professional Journalists Blasts Newtown Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Society of Professional Journalists has stepped into the debate over concealing portions of the investigative report into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, sending a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy denouncing a secretly drafted bill that would block public access to crime-scene photographs, 911 recordings and death certificates related to the massacre.

“The Society condemns the creation of this legislation outside the normal, transparent process of public hearings and debate. And we deplore the attempt to use the tragic events of Dec. 14 as an excuse to close off access to records that are otherwise available to the public,” SPJ President Sonny Albarado and Connecticut chapter President Jodie Mozdzer Gil wrote to Malloy.

The legislation was drafted out of concern for relatives of those killed at the school, who might be traumatized by widespread distribution of grisly images if crime-scene photographs were released. Transparency advocates, however, have bristled at the breadth of the proposed bill.

“This legislation does not honor the victims of the Newtown shooting, and the tragedy should not be used as an excuse to close access to public documents, the release of which does not change the circumstances surrounding the Newtown massacre,” the letter states. “In fact, their release could debunk conspiracy theories  and provide lessons worth learning.”

The legislature could vote on the bill this week, though Albarado and Mozdzer Gill are asking for a delay until public hearings can be held.

The full text of their letter is below.

Download (PDF, 199KB)

‘Conspiracy Nuts’ Relish Sandy Hook Secrecy Bill

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

It surely wasn’t their intention – and it’s clear they really don’t care what those on the fringe think – but a new bill developed by top state officials that would shield parts of the Sandy Hook investigation is proving to be a big hit with conspiracy theorists.

“The conspiracy nuts are going to love this,” a colleague had predicted the night details of the bill surfaced.

He was right. The legislation – drafted in secret and promoting secrecy – has unintentionally tickled the minds of those who feel buoyed by believing they’re in the know about some spectacularly massive government cover-up.

“In my estimation,” wrote a commenter on The New American website, “what they are trying to hide is that what happened at Sandy Hook (as well as at the shooting at the Batman movie not long before that) was a False Flag perpetuated by this administration for the purpose of furthering their on-going attacks upon our Constitutional freedoms and nothing less!!”

On the Courant’s site, a poster from Toronto asked: “Since when in the history of the world do they not publish a DEATH CERTIFICATE? I’ll tell you when… When the death certificate DOES NOT EXIST!”

And on, the granddaddy of conspiracy sites, hundreds of comments have been posted in response to the legislation, with many posters knowingly shaking their heads at the obviousness of it all.

“Nice how criminals get to cover up their own crimes and tracks,” one wrote. “Fortunately internet investigators have enough proof of what may have happened that day. One thing is certain: everything around Sandy Hook is a lie, a cover-up or a deception.”

Proponents of the legislation say they merely want to spare the relatives of  those killed at Sandy Hook the trauma that could come from having crime-scene photographs or other grisly details widely released. While typical media outlets refrain from publishing particularly disturbing images, proponents fear that the extraordinarily high profile of the Dec. 14 rampage would attract interest from others who would be willing to splash the images on the Internet.

As drafted, however, the bill goes beyond shielding images, and includes 911 recordings, police transmissions that describe the victims, and the death certificates issued for the 20 students and six educators killed at the school. The bill does not protect images or other records related to shooter Adam Lanza, who fatally shot himself in the school, or his mother, whom he also killed.

Transparency advocates have roundly criticized the proposal, particularly its extension to 911 recordings, which are often used to gauge law-enforcement response. The bill includes a provision for transcripts of such calls, though it is not clear if those transcripts could accurately reflect the tone and timing of the communications. Others question the fairness of legislation aimed at protecting the Sandy Hook families, but not the grieving relatives of other homicide victims.

Lawmakers are debating those points, and the bill might be amended if and when it comes up for a vote. In the meantime, those on the edge are relishing the fresh fodder.

“We already know they lied about assault rifles being used. That’s a proven fact,” one Huffington Post commenter confidently declared. “What are they covering up now?”

Nearly 10 Percent of Connecticut’s Bridges Are “Structurally Deficient”

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Politics, Public Safety Date:

The collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state Thursday night brings frightening memories of the deadly bridge failure near Minneapolis in 2007 and the collapse of the Mianus River bridge in Greenwich 30 years ago next month. And while the MianusBridgeinvestigation in Washington is just beginning, the collapse also revives lingering questions about the quality and safety of the nation’s 600,000 bridges – including more than 4,200 in Connecticut.

Data from the Federal Highway Administration show that 9.6 percent of Connecticut’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” meaning one or more major components is deemed to be in poor condition, defined as “advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling or scour.” (Spalling refers to chipping or flaking of concrete and bridge scour is the phenomenon in which water currents wash away sediment, rocks or other material that surrounds the base of the bridge.) Highway officials caution that the designation of a bridge as structurally deficient does not mean the bridge is unsafe.

The deficient bridges are typically shorter spans along minor roadways, but there are also dozens of Interstate bridges and ramps that are in poor condition.

The percentage of Connecticut bridges in poor condition is lower than the national average of 11.0 percent. But the state’s number has been rising, slowly but steadily, since 2006. The recent climb reversed significant progress to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges. More than 15 percent of state bridges were in poor condition in 1992, but that number dropped to 8.2 percent by 2003.

In addition to bridges deemed structurally deficient, nearly one in four Connecticut bridges is deemed “functionally obsolete,” meaning it no longer meets contemporary criteria for such factors as load capacity or shoulder width. That figure – significantly higher than the 16 percent of such bridges nationally – is partly a result of the state’s aging bridge infrastructure. In Connecticut, the average age of a bridge – or the time span since it was reconstructed – is about 44 years.

A Crime Like No Other, Followed by Secrecy to Match

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

For many, the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School five months ago was a crime like no other in the state’s history.

So is that a reason to treat its investigation with a level of secrecy like no other?

Connecticut’s top prosecutor thinks so, as do some gubernatorial and legislative leaders, as well as some of the relatives who lost loved ones in the school. As my colleagues Jon Lender and Ed Mahony report, officials have been working behind the scenes for weeks on legislation that would establish special rules for Sandy Hook, blocking release of certain details from the investigation that would be released for other crimes.

The officials are asking the legislature for permission to withhold images of the victims, recordings of 911 calls and any other audio transmission that describes the physical condition of the victims, and the name of any minor witness.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the Courant that major news outlets typically don’t publish or broadcast crime-scene photographs or other gruesome images, but he said the Newtown killings “rose to a whole different level,” attracting wide interest from bloggers and the public. Proponents also say releasing the 911 tapes would unfairly show the anguish of those who called.

Another provision would give Newtown officials permission to refuse media requests for copies of death certificates for those who died at Sandy Hook. Remarkably, the bill would grant that permission retroactively, meaning the legislature could take a vote in May 2013 that would establish what the laws of the state were in January 2013. That sort of ex post facto lawmaking is typically frowned on.

As the community tries to cope with its incomprehensible loss, access to those death certificates has become a curious line in the sand, and perhaps a cathartic battle for town officials rightly steeped in grief. State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky called reporters “jackals” for requesting the records. Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia defied decades of law by simply refusing to turn them over. And a recent poster on this site declared “I don’t want to or need to read a 6 year old’s death certificate explaining how his head was blown off.”

But that is almost certainly not what any of the death certificates contain. As those who have worked with death certificates know, the records typically include extremely brief and clinical descriptions of the cause of death. “Atherosclerotic heart disease” is common. Or “malignant neoplasm of the lung.” Or, tragically, “multiple gunshot wounds to the head.”

Withholding that detail may not bring much solace to those most affected by last December’s rampage. But as officials strive to navigate the sensitivities of Newtown, that may not much matter.

Officials say the bill could be voted on at any time. The full text of the legislation is below.

Download (PDF, 256KB)

Brilliant South Florida Sun Sentinel Investigation Wins Top Pulitzer Prize

by Categorized: Data, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

In Feb. 2012, I singled out a “stunningly clever” series of stories in the South Florida Sun Sentinel that exposed dangerously reckless driving by hundreds of off-duty police officers across the state. I named it an investigative-reporting “best of the week.” Today, the Pulitzer Board declared it the best of the year.

The Sun Sentinel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “Above the Law,” a three-day project meticulously reported by investigative reporter Sally Kestin and database editor John Maines. The project used data from toll transponders – like those used with the EZ-Pass system – to determine how fast off-duty officers were driving  when they were off the clock. (By analyzing how long it took for a vehicle to pass from one toll location to the next, Kestin and Maines could calculate the average speed each car was traveling.)

The paper found 800 officers from 12 police agencies routinely driving 90 to 130 mph on roads with a top speed limit of 70 mph. One officer routinely traveled 100 mph or more on his commute into work – until a state trooper pulled him over for going 120mph in a 65mph zone. It was that traffic stop that sparked the series.

This was not simply gotcha journalism. Florida officers have been involved in hundreds of accidents while off-duty, and the Sun Sentinel reported that 21 motorists have been maimed or killed by speeding cops in Florida since 2004.

The series prompted reforms that will make Florida’s roads safer. Now that’s public service.