HARTFORD (AP) — The state’s Freedom of Information Commission on Wednesday ordered the release of the 911 tapes from last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, ruling in favor of an appeal by The Associated Press for access to records withheld by investigators.
The recordings will not be made available immediately. The prosecutor leading the investigation of the massacre, Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, said the commission’s decision will be appealed in Connecticut’s courts.
The recordings could shed light on the law enforcement response to one of the worst school shootings in US history. Twenty-six people, including 20 first grade students, were killed inside the school on 12/14 by the gunman, who committed suicide as police arrived.
Mr Sedensky argued that the calls should be exempt from public information laws because they contain information that could be used in a law enforcement action. But the chairman of the commission, Owen Eagan, said Mr Sedensky did not make clear in his previous testimony how the information might be used or how its release could damage an investigation in which no arrests are anticipated.
“You never even reviewed the tapes,” Mr Eagan said on September 25, reminding Mr Sedensky of his testimony from June.
After hearing from lawyers from both sides at the hourlong hearing, the commissioners unanimously agreed to accept an earlier recommendation from a hearing officer, Kathleen Ross, who dismissed each of Mr Sedensky’s arguments for withholding the tapes. In addition to arguing that releasing the tapes could hurt the investigation, Mr Sedensky claimed they could subject witnesses to harassment from conspiracy theorists and violate survivors from the school who deserve special protection as victims of child abuse.
“This is a case about crime victims and witnesses who shouldn’t have to worry that their calls for help in their most vulnerable moments will become fodder for the evening news,” he said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.
On the day of the shooting, the AP requested documents, including copies of 911 calls, as it does routinely in news gathering, in part to examine the police response to the massacre that sent officers from multiple agencies racing to the school. If the recordings are released, the AP would review the content and determine what, if any, of it would meet the news cooperative’s standards for publication.
The town’s police department denied the AP’s request, and the AP appealed to the FOI commission.
Although 911 calls are typically released, Mr Sedensky directed Newtown police to not turn over the recordings while the inquiry was under way. In testimony in June before a hearing officer for the commission, Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe said a search for the records was not conducted until three days before his appearance at the FOI commission hearing.
Wednesday’s hearing was one of the first tests of a new Connecticut law — adopted in response to the massacre — that prevents public release of certain records in homicide cases. The law creates exemptions to the freedom-of-information law for the release of photographs, film, video, and other images depicting a homicide victim if those records constitute “an unwarranted invasion” on the privacy of the surviving family members. It also created a one-year moratorium on the release of certain portions of audiotape and other recordings — with the exception of 911 tapes — in which the condition of a homicide victim is described.
In her August 27 recommendation siding with the AP, hearing officer Kathleen Ross wrote that the new law “`specifically does not shield from disclosure recordings of 911 calls from members of the public to law enforcement agencies.’”
Mr Sedensky argued in reply that certain content of 911 calls could be shielded by the law. He gave the example of a possible call from a sexual assault victim.
“It is highly doubtful that the legislature would have wanted a sexual assault victim to have to choose between calling the police and having his or her 911 call on every radio station, therefore it could not have been the intent of the legislature to eliminate all exemptions simply because they were in the context of a 911 call,” Mr Sedensky wrote.
His arguments were rejected by Ms Ross, who said she was dismayed that the Newtown Police Department withheld the tapes at the direction of a state’s attorney.
Newtown officials and Mr Sedensky now have 45 days to decide whether to appeal to Superior Court.
A state task force created by the new freedom-of-information legislation is expected to come up with proposals to help strike a balance between victim privacy under the state’s law and the public’s right to know. The task force faces a January 1 deadline.