MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday that he wants to increase public access to records dealing with police investigations.
An exemption in Vermont’s public records law has long hampered citizens’ access to documents related to criminal probes. But Shumlin has asked lawmakers to adopt a federal standard that allows police to withhold records only when their disclosure would cause some kind of specific harm.
Shumlin said the exemption related to criminal investigations is “the area of state government where we often have the greatest challenges.”
“And I can understand why,” he said. “It’s a complex area when you’re trying to bring justice.”
But Shumlin said Vermont’s blanket prohibition against the release of any documents related to a criminal investigation, active or not, unduly restricts the public’s right to know.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, cheered the announcement.
A number of recent cases in Vermont — including a pending one in which the Rutland Herald is seeking records dealing with an investigation at the Rutland City Police Department — have highlighted the media’s inability to investigate fully the work of the police they cover.
Gilbert said the restrictive records laws have fueled an unhealthy, and usually inaccurate, public perception of police.
“Because of the current exemption, the public feels that police activities are not on the up and up,” Gilbert said. “The public feels like it doesn’t have the access it needs to judge how well police are doing their jobs.”
Attorney General William Sorrell has said he supports expanding public access to criminal investigation records only in probes that focus on law enforcement officers. Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sorrell’s stance reflects legitimate concerns about preserving the integrity of criminal cases as well as the privacy of those involved with them.
Sears said he believes this part of public records law needs more clarity but that he wants to review the governor’s proposal to ensure it won’t have unintended consequences.
“We want to protect people that are the subject of criminal investigations to the extent they may be innocent, and you also have an obligation to some of the people that agree to cooperate with police in an investigation,” Sears said. “So I’m mindful of all sides of this.”
The federal standard allows police to withhold documents in criminal investigations when their release would interfere with a fair trial, reveal a confidential informant or investigative technique, violate someone’s privacy, or threaten someone’s safety.
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