HARTFORD — A proposed new contract for Connecticut State Police includes new restrictions on the public release of information in troopers’ personnel files, drawing concerns from government transparency advocates.
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, said the new contract language could be interpreted in a way that would ban the release of any information from troopers’ files, keeping secret the results of misconduct investigations and discipline imposed on troopers.
Leaders of the state police union, however, said that was not the intent. Andrew Matthews, the union’s executive director, said the goal was to prevent the public release only of information related to misconduct investigations that end with findings of “exonerated,” ”unfounded” or “not sustained.”
“We’ve seen an increase in anonymous, malicious false allegations against troopers,” Matthews said. “It’s our obligation to our members to protect and defend their good reputations. False allegations should never be disclosed to anyone. They ruin reputations.”
State officials and the union reached agreement on a new contract for 2018 to 2022 through arbitration, and the deal must be approved by the legislature. The 880 troopers, sergeants and master sergeants in the union would get 2% raises in the 2020 fiscal year and 2.25% raises in each of the following two years. They also would get new paid meal breaks costing more than $4 million a year.
The contract awaits Senate approval after having been approved by the House of Representatives on May 23.
Both Murphy and Matthews said they were inquiring about clarifying the language on personnel files before the Senate vote.
The contract section at issue says “An employee’s OPF (official personnel folder) and internal affairs investigations with only a disposition of “Exonerated, Unfounded or Not Sustained” shall not be subject to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.”
Murphy and David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said it is important for public confidence in government to require state police to release records relating to all misconduct investigations, whether or not troopers were exonerated or the allegations were not sustained.
“The courts have said that even when someone is exonerated … that it is beneficial for the public to understand how complaints were investigated and whether they were investigated properly,” Murphy said. “The public can see that process and feel good that someone was exonerated, or feel it wasn’t investigated properly.”
Murphy said the contract also could become ammunition in an effort to change state law to limit when public employee contracts can supersede the state Freedom of Information Act, which regulates the disclosure of public records.
McGuire said the contract is a “slap in the face” to people demanding transparency from police departments, including families whose loved ones are killed by officers.
“No government agency should be allowed to keep the public in the dark, especially one whose employees carry weapons and arrest and kill people,” he said.
Secrecy about police conduct records has been debated around the country.
In April, a New Hampshire judge ruled that a secret list of more than 260 police officers in the state who have committed misconduct such as lying or excessive force must be made public. Also in April, a California appeals court ruled law enforcement agencies must release police misconduct records even if the behavior occurred before a new transparency law took effect.