Lawmakers open police records to public scrutiny

The Vermont Legislature has approved opening the criminal investigative files of police to public scrutiny, in a move modeling Vermont’s open records standards on a federal model.

A conference committee to debate differences between the House and Senate on the legislation came to an agreement by Tuesday morning, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

Senators like Sears were concerned about language inserted by the House, which made it public record when and if a grand jury of citizens met to decide whether to charge a police officer with police misconduct.

Currently, the existence of grand juries, as well as what they discuss during court hearings, is kept secret, especially if no criminal charges are filed against the defendant. The House’s language came upon the advice of Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Sears wanted that language removed, and the conference committee agreed.

In exchange, the House received an OK for moving privacy protections, designed to redact the names of victims and witnesses of crime, from actual statute language into the “intent” section of the legislation, which signals what lawmakers mean by their policy choices.

Previously, the Senate wanted that language in the statute.

Sears also said letters of instruction will be sent out to state officials to emphasize that lawmakers want victims’ names redacted, but that a redaction won’t mean that the whole record will be withheld from those who request it.

Under the legislation, police records produced during a criminal investigation are presumed open unless a government attorney successfully argued that one of six exceptions, which keep the file confidential, apply.

“I think it’s a tremendously important step for Vermont,” said Sears, who shepherded the legislation through as Senate Judiciary chair. State courts can benefit from the significant body of case law already amassed by federal courts in past battles over open records, he said.

Nat Rudarakanchana

Comments

  1. David Dempsey :

    When you have an attorney general who consistantly has cleared police officers that his office investigates of any wrongdoing during his long tenure, this legislation is a big step in the right direction. I have great respect for the police and the difficult and dangerous work they do. They are definately underpaid for the risks they face everyday. But to think that no police officer in Vermont would possibly do something wrong is akin to saying no town treasurer in Vermont would ever do anything wrong. With so many towns getting fleeced by town officers, you would think that the state and the Vermont League Of Cities and Towns could come up with an affordable plan to do at least a basic independant audit for each city and town at regular intervals. Basic regular audits of bank statements can prevent or discover embezzlement. The police also receive very little oversight because the state allows the police to investigate themselves. Those investigations should be done by some type of an independant party. In the meantime this legislation is an attempt at providing some transparency.

  2. Christian Noll :

    Well said Dave.

    “Those investigations should be done by some type of independent party.”

    I could not possibly agree with you more.

    There is no monitoring system, either licensing, oversight committee nor otherwise for reporting police misconduct in Vermont, or at least logging it somewhere.

    I’ve posted propositions about this in Greg Guma’s October 1st 2012 vtdigger article on police “oversight” or the “commission” and why we would have and independent police oversight committee in Vermont.

    http://vtdigger.org/2012/10/01/burlington-police-commission-rejects-calls-for-independent-inquiry-on-july-protest-response/

    So if the incident never makes the media (most do not), we the public will never know about it.

    I was amazed to find out that the state I grew up in; Vermont has the highest police misconduct rate per capita of officers IN THE NATION.. (NPMSRP, 2008,09,10,11)

    Having the police investigating themselves is putting the fox in charge of the hen house. It is hard to fathom we have let this go on for this long. Yes our current Attorney General is an embarrassment. I am ashamed of him.

    Police need to be as “A-Political” as possible and our local law enforcement especially in Burlington have become far too politically motivated. This corrupts them. I’ve spoken at length about this.

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