Policy restricts your right to know
Dear readers: This is a shorter version of the editorial that appears in print versions of the Friday, July 21 edition of the Journal.
The Vermont State Police have a difficult job, and we respect the work they do.
But the state police public affairs officers should not be the sole arbiters of what information you should or should not have when it comes to crimes, motor vehicle accidents, missing people and untimely deaths in Vermont.
That has been the role of a free and responsible press since this country was founded.
The revised Vermont State Police public information policy put into effect July 13 puts Vermont State Police in the position of gatekeepers of what the public should know — and what the public should not be allowed to know.
The public information policy — and let's be honest, it's essentially the guide to what Vermont State Police can and cannot tell the press — was enacted despite warnings from the Vermont Press Association that it does not meet the standards of the Vermont Constitution or the state public records law.
Some information does require sensitivity, and media outlets such as this newspaper have long recognized this. For years, common ground has existed between law enforcement agencies and news department policies. For example, while names of sexual assault victims are often public record, the press in Vermont and many other places does not identify them unless they themselves step forward.
But the new policy doesn't stop there.
The policy prohibits Vermont State Police from releasing "person(s) name or information that could identify the victim of a sex crime, assault, including domestic assault, burglary, robbery or any crime against the person."
So, if someone were to steal $10,000 worth of keepsakes from former Gov. Peter Shumlin, there's no guarantee you'll know there was a theft, or which items were taken.
If a neighborhood is being victimized by burglars, do you not have the right to know you should lock your doors and leave the lights on at night?
This policy says Vermont State Police don't have to tell you. Even when common sense says they should.
Bennington County residents know this all too well.
This past winter, Arlington residents only learned after the stabbing death of Helen Jones that there had been a series of break-ins in town that had not been made public by state police. Whether making those break-ins public would have prevented a tragedy is purely speculative — and just so we're clear, only one man, Timothy Butler, stands accused in Jones' death, and no one else.
But hindsight in that case begs a question that sadly can never be answered.
When asked about this aspect of the policy, Vermont State Police spokesman Steve Waterman had this to say: "Press releases inform the public of important activities, events and incidents. Many of these incidents include a victim or victims of crime. Non-disclosure of victim identity protects his/her privacy, and is intended to prevent re-victimization, retaliation and obstruction of justice by offenders. A crime victim is always able to self-identify is he/she so chooses; however, that decision should be his/hers."
It's interesting that the state police believe they need a restrictive media policy to protect the victims of crimes. It's also an excuse: Alleged offenders don't need the media's help in attempting to intimidate victims and witnesses. They can accomplish that all by themselves.
While the policy commits Vermont State Police to issuing a press release within 24 hours for all death investigations, it makes a notable exception: "Deaths where the release of information would impede or cause harm to the integrity of an investigation."
And who gets to decide what causes harm to the integrity of an investigation? The Vermont State Police.
If someone dies in a manner that warrants police investigation, it's the public's right to know whether police suspect a crime has been committed — and whether they should be concerned about their safety.
The policy also exempts Department of Public Safety internal investigation reports, except internal investigations (as provided in 20 V.S.A. 1923).
"Except as provided in 20 V.S.A. 1923, internal investigations are defined as personnel matters and the documents generated by them are not public. The release of these documents is specifically addressed by statute, not policy," Waterman said.
We disagree. You, the taxpayer, fund the state police, and you deserve to know if your money is being spent wisely.
The hard work and commitment of of the Vermont State Police is admirable. They cover a wide expanse of territory, protecting public safety and dealing with the very worst problems that society can offer. It's not at all a stretch to say they save lives.
Put another way: Our issue is with this policy, not with the men and women of the VSP who perform an often thankless job. But merely saying that a policy shall adhere to state public record laws does not assure that will be the case — especially when that very policy makes numerous, unwarranted and unwise exceptions to the public's right to know, and establishes itself as the watchdog of what you should and should not know.
We urge the Department of Public Safety and the state police to pull back this policy until these concerns can be addressed. We urge our lawmakers to get involved and question why the policy was rewritten in a manner that restricts the public's right to know. And we urge our readers to reach out to the Department of Public Safety and voice their concerns over the intended and unintended consequences of this unwise and restrictive policy.
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