• Guarding the guardians
    February 13,2013

    The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up a bill today that would help ensure that police activities in Vermont are no longer protected by a veil of secrecy.

    It has become a matter of increasing concern that Vermontís public records law, which is meant to give citizens access to public records, has become riddled with exemptions ó Swiss cheese that is more holes than cheese. Among the holes is an exemption that makes records compiled during a criminal investigation off limits to the public.

    The Rutland Herald and Times Argus have pursued legal action to gain access to documents of the Rutland City Police Department and the Vermont State Police in relation to a variety of instances of police misconduct. In other places, notably the town of Hartford, questionable police actions have led to legal challenges, with the press and public seeking access to police documents.

    In response, the Vermont Supreme Court has slammed the door on the publicís right to know what its police departments are up to. The exemption for documents related to police investigations is broad and sturdy. So the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a bill that opens up to public view records of police actions.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the effort to close the loophole for police records, with an exemption for documents that might constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy. The bill would also include exemptions meant to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations. But records about investigations that have been concluded would be open to the public.

    It is essential in a democracy to subject the police to public oversight. The Rutland City Police Department is emerging from a period when several cases of police misconduct came in for internal investigations that might have remained shrouded in secrecy. In Hartford, there were questions about an incident when police rousted a Hartford resident out of his own bathroom. The public had a reasonable interest in both Rutland and Hartford in learning whether their police were behaving properly.

    Ultimately, greater openness and accountability are helping the city of Rutland correct some of the problems besetting its police force. But reform would not have been possible if misconduct had remained the topic of rumor, innuendo and misinformation.

    One of the principal challenges in a democracy is expressed in the question: Who guards the guardians? In a democracy no one is allowed to wield unchecked power, including those institutions with the power to guard and protect us. Thatís why we have civilian control over the military. Itís why even the president is subject to the law and the Constitution. It is why the public must have a way of ensuring that the police are behaving properly and that the police are able adequately to police themselves.

    Misconduct within police departments is particularly troublesome. Loyalty among officers sometimes gets in the way of corrective action. Departments often want to keep problems in house, which is a way sometimes of not dealing with them. Certainly, the problems in Rutland were an embarrassment to individuals and to the department ó involving the viewing of pornography on police computers, for example. But the public has to have confidence that its police department can address embarrassing problems in an honest, straightforward manner. Access to documents about police affairs is a way to guard the guardians and to make sure the guardians are guarding us in appropriate fashion.

    Attorney General William Sorrell has not been the most dependable defender of the public interest on these questions. He tends to line up with law enforcement, concerned as he is with the ability of police departments to carry out their duties. Thus, his views on controversial questions are often narrowly legalistic.

    For example, his report on the Taser killing of a Thetford man found that, legally, the incident did not involve police misconduct. But the interest of the public is broader than that ó about the proper use of Tasers. The same goes for the question of public access to police records. Public access may be uncomfortable or embarrassing for police departments, but thatís all the more reason for making their records available for public scrutiny.

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