A neighbor caught a Winooski Police officer on camera when he shot an unarmed mentally ill man in the leg. Whether the officer was justified is under investigation. And thanks to a new police records law, details from the investigation could be public once the case is closed.
"One of the ways that citizens can hold government officials including police officers accountable is through access to information," said Allen Gilbert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.
Right now, police and prosecutors can deny access to closed investigations into on-duty police conduct. Starting Monday, those records-- or at least parts of them-- will be open, along with other closed criminal case files.
Gilbert points to the case of Wayne Burwell of Wilder. He was suffering a medical emergency, but Hartford police did not know that when they were called to his home and beat and pepper-sprayed him. Advocates claimed racial profiling. But police refused to release records in the case.
"We think they should have been released. And under this new standard, the federal FOIA standard, I think they would have been released," Gilbert said.
The Vermont law is based on the federal freedom of information act or FOIA. Twenty-one other states have similar public records laws.
"This is a complete change from current Vermont law," Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen said.
McQueen is one of the law enforcement officials who testified in favor of the change. He says most police departments in Chittenden County try to be open with information. But the new law creates guidelines for others that have kept information secret.
"I think some of it is lack of understanding, and to some degree, fear of releasing information you shouldn't," McQueen said.
Police still have some discretion in what gets released. The FOIA standards try to balance the public's right to know with personal privacy. And departments can redact details. Police can also still deny access to information in ongoing investigations.
"We don't want to accuse somebody that really isn't guilty of a crime. And we also don't want to tip our hand," McQueen explained.
The public can still challenge police when they deny access to information. A judge would then decide if records should be released.
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