The Limited Shelf Life Of Hartford’s Political Fidelity

When the legislature passed a law last year that shielded from public view the crime scene photos from the 12/14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers were standing in line to express their solidarity with the people of Newtown. They wanted to stand with us in our grief and our resolve to resist sensationalist exploitation of the horrific tragedy that shook this town and shocked the world. Now we are seeing signs that political fidelity in Hartford has a limited shelf life.

About a year after 12/14, a member of the state Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right To Know was equivocating. “We really cannot make public policy seeking the opinions of people who are still legitimately, awfully traumatized by what happened to them,” said task force member James Smith. This discomfort with legitimacy and the “awfulness” suffered in Sandy Hook, evidently, has been spreading in the legislature. Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr, testified at two legislative hearings Monday calling for abandonment of the protections promised and delivered by lawmakers last year.

Attorneys representing the families of those slain at Sandy Hook School on 12/14 were also in Hartford on Monday. They informed the Judiciary Committee that efforts to loosen restrictions on the disposition and public accessibility of crime scene photos taken in the school in December 2012 are a breach of faith with the people of Newtown, who sought and were accorded assurances that the “dignity and privacy” of victims and their families would be respected and protected. “We remember when some of us were asked to stand on the floors of your respective chambers and watch as virtually every single one of you joined us in passing [these protections in] Public Act 12-311,” the attorneys reminded legislators this week.

The legislature’s disaffection with its original response to 12/14 has taken the form of Raised Bill No. 388, which would guarantee public access to all records, including crime scene photos of homicides — even on the scale of the Sandy Hook massacre — placing some conditions on their reproduction and distribution. It would allow the Freedom of Information Commission to order their release when they are deemed to advance a “significant public interest,” according task force member Senator Leonard A. Fasano.

We ask again the questions we posed in this space last December when the legislative task force first started to waver on these privacy protections: Which of the problems and issues that arose in the reckoning of 12/14 will be resolved by public viewing of graphic crime scene photos? Exactly what public interest is served? We are still waiting for answers even though, apparently, the expiration date for a thoughtful response has passed.

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