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Information is not the public’s enemy

A Colorado Community Media Editorial

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This week’s release of a report summarizing the investigation into the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary offers a glimpse into the horror of what happened on Dec. 14, 2012.

It, however, is not a complete accounting of what happened. The state police’s full report was not included and it is not known when that will be released. At the same time, media outlets are fighting for the release of 911 tapes — which generally are considered public record. Indeed, nearly a year later, the Newtown, Conn., tragedy is still marked by a measure of secrecy.

We’re not going to argue what should and shouldn’t be released in the Sandy Hook investigation. Records in this case, in which a gunman killed 28 people, including 20 children, should be handled delicately. The victims’ families deserve that.

What we will point out, though, is that the slow release of information — and the outright withholding of some records — is not limited to high-profile, horrific cases like Sandy Hook. It happens every day in Colorado, most likely throughout the nation.

“Ongoing criminal investigation.” That’s the phrase routinely used to deny reporters and the public information about a case.

The Colorado Open Records Act allows for this. Law enforcement agencies may deny the release of records when providing the information would “be contrary to the public interest.” Generally, the “ongoing criminal investigation” phrase is invoked. Further explanation will sometimes yield that releasing the information could jeopardize the case against a suspect. Maybe it could put witnesses in danger.

What often happens is that the local law enforcement agency gives out some initial nuggets of information — which may or may not include an arrest report or other official documents. After the agency finishes its investigation, the case moves on to the district attorney. Then, for a period of weeks, or months, or sometimes more than a year, no further details are released. Generally, you have to wait for trial to get anything near the full story.

This process leaves more than just reporters unsatisfied. The American Civil Liberties Union joined with a local couple last week to sue the Town of Castle Rock, its town clerk and the police chief for refusal to release records related to an incident in February. The couple’s car was hit with a bullet, they say, after a police officer fired his gun at a burglary suspect. They say they want more answers about what happened before and during the shooting.

Thing is, it’s an ongoing investigation.

We won’t argue what should and shouldn’t be released in this case either. We don’t have enough information to do that.

Surely there are some cases in which a successful prosecution and people’s safety depend on keeping things under wraps. But “ongoing investigation” has become a stock answer, and as such, we’ll say the spirit of the open records law is being violated on a regular basis in Colorado.

All too often what’s contrary to the public interest is being left out in the dark.

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