A dashboard camera (wikipedia)
On Dec. 8, recently retired Hartford police officer Sean Spell was arrested and charged with excessive force for his actions last summer. On June 4, police dashboard cameras recorded Spell kicking Emilio Diaz in the head as Diaz lay prone and handcuffed after a high-speed chase. Diaz was already injured when this occurred; Spell himself claimed he kicked Diaz to stop him from spitting blood.
But by the time the public learned all this, Spell, 46, had retired with an annual pension of $129,000 from the city. The State’s Attorney’s Office blocked release of the police tapes of the incident until October, despite requests from both Hartford and West Hartford. The delays increased public anger by combining police abuse with withholding information.
This is just one of many incidents around the country where delay in releasing police videotapes undermines the public interest. But in Connecticut, unlike in some states, it also violates the law.
In 2015, Connecticut amended its statutes to make clear that all records depicting an arrest or custody are public records subject to state freedom-of-information laws. That same year, the state provided police districts with funding to acquire body cameras, exempting only recordings in private homes, hospitals, and other specific situations from public-records disclosure. While states like North Carolina and Louisiana have passed laws to restrict public access to police videotapes, Connecticut has chosen a different policy.
There are exceptions to disclosure in Connecticut. Law enforcement may withhold records of ongoing investigations if disclosure would be prejudicial to the investigation. But they have burden of proving potential prejudice. They cannot simply cite an ongoing investigation and rest there.
Yet that seems to be what the State’s Attorney did. It is hard to see how making public video evidence of what happened that night would prejudice the investigation. Indeed, one of the officers agreed to talk to state investigators only after release of the tape showing him standing by during the assault on Diaz.
The State’s Attorney was not alone in withholding information. The State Police reported that the Hartford Police Department did not release Spell’s own account of the incident to them until Aug. 22, a few days after Spell retired. Withholding public records that might make the police look bad is part of a pattern that exists across Connecticut and across the country. But in this era more than ever, we need to rebuild trust between police and the public. We can only do that when government agencies share the information they have.
Connecticut’s Legislature has chosen the right balance in favor of disclosure. Law enforcement must now comply. •