Hiding massacre records doesn’t protect anyone

Especially in Connecticut’s disintegrating cities, people have been getting murdered for years without governors and legislators suggesting that public policy should be turned over to the families of the victims. But now Governor Malloy and some legislators are devoting themselves to what they call an effort to protect the survivors of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

It’s all a mistake, as what is proposed would not protect anyone but endanger everyone by diminishing accountability in government.

The governor and certain legislators want to outlaw release of police photos of the Newtown carnage, recordings of emergency calls and death certificates of the victims or require the permission of their families for any releases.

While the governor and legislators acknowledge that newspapers won’t publish photos of carnage, they figure that such photos will find their way to the Internet. Even so, it’s only newspapers that are delivered, that thrust themselves in people’s faces. Things on the Internet have to be sought out; one has to look for them. And the loss of a child is the ultimate pain; nothing that happens on the Internet can worsen it.

Of course recordings of emergency calls have been released for years, enabling evaluation of police response, and death certificates have been released for centuries, so the public can be satisfied that deaths involve no wrongdoing.

Even some parents of the Newtown massacre victims seem to recognize the public interest in disclosure.

The mother of one of the children killed had her child’s casket opened so the horrific injuries would be seared into the governor’s memory to influence him as he went on to make public policy.

And the father of one of the teachers killed displays his daughter’s death certificate at public meetings for public policy purposes as well. At a meeting in New Hampshire where he meant to scold a U.S. senator for her vote against gun-control legislation, he brandished the certificate and said, “This is reality.”

So if the proposed legislation is enacted, custodianship of the records of the atrocity will be in effect transferred to the families of the victims and access will depend on their political objectives.

This attack on freedom of information may arise from realization that state government’s response to the massacre — outlawing sales of certain semi-automatic guns and large magazines — would have done little to prevent or diminish it because it was essentially a freak event. Like the gun legislation, the legislation to conceal the public records will mainly let elected officials pose as having done something. They will be legislating not from reason but from rage, grief and political cynicism.

The governor argues that concealing the massacre records is justified because the massacre was extraordinary. But state government’s new victim advocate, Garvin G. Ambrose, perceives that crime is crime and that the legislation’s principles could be applied everywhere; he proposes that a veto on disclosure of crime records should be legislated for all crime victims and their families. That would be the end of accountable government.

Accountability already has been diminished by the Malloy administration’s other attacks on freedom of information — secrecy for criminal pardons, corporate welfare, thieving state employees, the new state gun crimes registry, and so on. Asked the other day about the refusal of Newtown Town Clerk Debbie A. Aurelia to obey current law by making death certificates from the massacre available for public inspection, the governor replied peremptorily, “I’m not getting involved in that.” It was as if he too, like the town clerk, had not taken an oath to uphold the law even when it might be politically inconvenient or require a little explanation.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.