Vermont State Police Rewrite Press Rules To Withhold As Much Information As Possible

from the close-to-the-vest dept

Various authority figures have attempted to define journalism, usually excluding their critics. A recent post here covered a police chief who decided he could determine a journalist's credibility based almost solely on their web presence. Trimming down the definition of "journalist" allows government officials to limit their accountability by treating only certain outlets as credible.

So, we already have government authorities attempting to define what is or isn't a "real" news outlet. Jonathan Peters of the Columbia Journalism Review reports a government authority is attempting to define what is or isn't news. In this case, it's the Vermont State Police.

It recently revised a “Press Release and Public Information Policy” that provides guidance for police officers regarding how, what, and when information should be given to the press and public. The revisions came in July, and local journalists aren’t happy.

“The policy leaves it up to individual state troopers to determine what is news and what isn’t,” Michael Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Press Association, tells CJR. “Crimes, including sexual assaults, armed robberies, arsons, burglaries, embezzlements, drugs, and more are not required to be disclosed. Vermonters want to know if they are safe in their homes and out on the streets.

The new policy [PDF] prefers ambiguity to clarity and transparency. Worse, it allows officers and police officials to make subjective calls on newsworthiness, which is obviously going to make policing the police that much more difficult. This part is particularly problematic, as it restricts dissemination of information to that which is subjectively defined as "significant public interest."

Press releases will be issued as soon as practicable for significant incidents of public interest, including, but not limited to arrests, citations, road closures, hazardous scenes and motor vehicle crashes.

Beyond that, VSP will withhold all info that "could identify" victims of crimes. This would include those who are on the receiving end of criminal activity by law enforcement officers. As Peters points out, this may nod to privacy, but does very little for public safety. (Not to mention accountability…) This would allow officers to withhold information that might be actually useful to the public, like the areas where repeated criminal activity is being observed.

Even as it places more limits on dissemination, the State Police is playing up its supposed "consultation" with local journalists when revising its policy. That's as much of a sham as the new policy.

While the police say they consulted the press (the state public-safety head wrote in a July letter-to-the-editor that the police “met with and had several discussions with and solicited input from” local journalists), the press association didn’t receive a final draft of the revisions before they were implemented.

Donoghue says the formal consultation amounted to one meeting with two officials. Another press association leader then asked to meet with the public-safety head, who hadn’t attended the meeting except to offer a brief welcome. That request wasn’t granted, and there was no follow-up meeting involving the press.

When asked directly about the changes (and their tendency to make dissemination of information even less likely), the Police spokesman offered up some talking points, but little in the way of clarity. He told Waterman the policy tries to strike a balance between the public's right to know and individual privacy and the integrity of criminal investigations. The spokesman also pointed to the department's 14 press releases a day as evidence that it's all over this transparency thing. But, as is pointed out by the policy's critics, 14 releases a day isn't much when there are more than 300 officers on staff. The VSP issues press releases for things like driving with a suspended license and other misdemeanors. If this minutia is supposed to be evidence of transparency, what are the other 300 officers doing with their time?

The faux consultation and the broad language attempt to disguise the self-interested policy rewriting. Law enforcement agencies are rarely paragons of transparency. The new rules the State Police wrote itself with almost zero consultation will only serve to keep more information out of the public's hands.

Filed Under: foia, police, transparency, vermont


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  1. icon
    musterion (profile), 15 Sep 2017 @ 6:46am

    Remember, this is the state that Bernie Sanders represents.


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