Newtown 911 Calls, Victim Photos Could be Sealed Under Conn. Bill

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 23, 2013 3 min read
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A secretive effort by Connecticut lawmakers to seal records related to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December is detailed by the Hartford Courant in a May 21 piece.

The bill being drafted, which the newspaper discovered through an email written by an assistant in Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane’s office, would “protect crime scene photographs protecting victims and certain 911 tapes,” Kane subsequently told the Courant after the email was obtained by the paper. Specifically, it would exempt those photos and audio tapes from public-records requests made through the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and victims’ families would apparently get to decide whether photos, audio, and digital recordings could be released.

Apparently, Kane had been concerned about this issue “for years and years” before the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in which 20 students and six staff members died, and he told court reporters that “the intrusion of the privacy of the individuals outweighs any public interest in seeing these.” Staff from the office of Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, are also apparently involved in the effort. The bill may end allowing just transcripts of audio tapes related to the shootings to be released.

So far, police haven’t released the 911 calls from the Newtown shootings, and perhaps the knowledge that under other circumstances that audio might have been released by now has spurred top officials in Connecticut to change the law and stop those calls from reaching the media. Kane also told the paper that the nature of the Newtown shootings might lead media outlets to decide that photos of the crime scene, for example, which often don’t get publicized during criminal trials, might be worth showing to the public.

“Right now, with the Internet, we’re in a whole different era,” Kane told the Associated Press on May 23 after the Courant reported the story. “These images could be public and could be out there and could end up all over the place, and you just don’t want families subjected to having that type of infringement.”

According to the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, criminal records can be exempted from being made public if they contain signed statements by witnesses, the identities of informants, and for other reasons. The Newtown case is still technically open. But once a case is closed, many public records related to criminal activity are either made public by law enforcement as a matter of choice, or made public because state law requires it.

Supporters of the law say it is intended to be narrow and only addresses the Newtown case. But Colleen Murphy, the director of that commission, said in an interview with the AP that crafting a bill to target a specific situation may still set a bad precedent for similar incidents in the future. She also pointed out that the way the bill is being drafted without public comment and the usual review by relevant committees doesn’t inspire confidence.

“Let’s hope we never face any situation like this again,” she said. “But will a situation of lesser degree cause similar concerns and lead to similar passage to deal with a very specific situation? That is probably not the best way to legislate overall.”

This isn’t the first time that media access has become an issue in the aftermath of a school shooting. Some records from the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, such as depositions from the parents of shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, remain sealed and off-limits to the media. The so-called “Basement Tapes,” video recordings made by Klebold and Harris before the shootings, were also sealed off from the public, although a record of them created by law enforcement has been released.

Aside from the question of access to public records related to school shootings like Newtown, Connecticut and other states have been considering hundreds of bills designed to improve school security in various ways, and dozens of these bills have been signed into law. For a list of these bills by state and an analysis of popular approaches by lawmakers, visit our interactive graphic on post-Newtown school safety legislation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.