Victim confidentiality affords the same to domestic violence offenders

Since July 1, Connecticut Public Act No. 15-211, “an act concerning revisions to the criminal justice statutes,” has mandated that police departments withhold the names and addresses of domestic violence victims, and the Wilton Police Department, “once we got word of it,” immediately adopted a policy change in response, according to Lt. Stephen Brennan.

But the new policy prevents disclosure of offenders’ names and addresses along with those of their victims. This is by design.

An incident of domestic violence, or violence within the home, can involve a victim or victims and one or more offenders who share the same residence, and, in cases of interspousal and familial violence, the victim(s) and the offender(s) often share the same name, too.

Thus, in exposing the offender, the victim may also be exposed.

Speaking hypothetically, Brennan said, “If you and your wife were involved in an altercation, and police came to, say, 1 Main Street, and they don’t put her name down because she was victimized, but you were arrested, but now they put your name, and it says, ‘The husband, who resides with his wife at 1 Main Street, [then the identity of the victim has been exposed].”

“A lot of times,” he continued, “in a domestic, it could be a spouse — same name, same address. It could be a parent or a child — same name, same address. So you don’t want to revictimize the victim.”

Under Public Act No. 15-211, Sec. 24, Section 54-86e of the general statutes now specifies that in addition to sexual assault victim identities, “the name and address of the victim of … family violence … and such other identifying information pertaining to such victim as determined by the court, shall be confidential and shall be disclosed only upon order of the Superior Court.”

“Just like victims of sexual assaults,” Brennan said. “They’ve now incorporated victims of domestic violence, so they’re not revictimized.”

When asked whether he agreed, on behalf of the Wilton Police Department, that the importance of victim confidentiality eclipses that of crime reporting, he said, “I wouldn’t say ‘agree,’ because I don’t have official words with the chief. I would say simply that we’re following the state model, and we’re abiding by the public act.”

“To say ‘agree’ is very difficult,” he said, “but we follow what is handed down to us. That’s important — to follow the rules.”

The act protecting victims may be at odds with language in Sec. 1-215 of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which voids statutory confidentiality requirements when it comes to arrests.

According to Sec. 1-215, “Notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes, and except as otherwise provided in this section, any record of the arrest of any person shall be a public record from the time of such arrest and shall be disclosed.”

The section goes on to delineate, “‘Record of the arrest’ means the name, race and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest and the offense for which the person was arrested.”

Thomas A. Hennick, public education officer for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said the new law was plugged in before the legislature adjourned and it took people by surprise.

Hennick said he is not aware of any direct exemption for family violence in the Freedom of Information Act.

Not releasing names, Hennick said, “is clearly a conflict in interpretation and potentially a real problem, because there is no such thing as a secret arrest in Connecticut.”

Hennick said it is his opinion that the only way to know for sure whether an offender’s information should be withheld would be for someone to file a Freedom of Information complaint and for the commission to issue an official ruling. If a party disagreed with the ruling, the person could file a court case.

“I’m not an attorney, and I don’t try to parse or interpret the law,” he said. “At first blush it looks like a deal that we shouldn’t release the name. But not if it only applies to court records when sealed,” he said.

Hennick understands the intent is to protect victims, but said that “sometimes there are unintended consequences, and this, I think, would be one.”

Karen Jarmock, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the legality of reporting the names of domestic violence offenders has been a gray area for a long time in Connecticut, and she hopes newly implemented police policies that respond to Public Act No. 15-211 will encourage an open discussion in the state.

“What I would say is, I’m not sure if [these police policies are] legal or not, but that’s why I appreciate this. Because this will force some sort of a situation. I’m willing to stand with [police departments] and fight for this,” Jarmock said.

“This is something that has been such a challenging issue statewide,” Jarmock said. “We deal with this all the time. If they list the name of the offender — especially in smaller communities — it will basically expose the victim.”

It’s a subject that The Wilton Bulletin and sister newspapers in the HAN Network have struggled to address over the years.

HAN Network Editorial Director John Kovach agrees that “this has been a source of debate throughout newsrooms for decades. We’ve always worked to protect the victims, whether it meant naming the accused or not. Even at a panel discussion in Boston involving police, a district attorney and domestic violence advocates, I was told that all of their offices were debating which was the best approach.”

The policy of withholding names has led to allegations against newspapers that they are providing safe harbor to abusers. The policy of using names is met with the argument that a victim will not call 911.

Kovach said when withholding names at other newspapers, the street was routinely released by police and not withheld unless it would directly identify the victim.

Identifying the arrested and the charge is not done in the name of gossip, Kovach said.

“Police reporting is intended to warn residents of crime in their area,” he said, “but it also prevents the police from operating in a vacuum.”
— Redding Pilot Editor Christopher Burns and Easton Courier Editor Nancy Doniger contributed to this report.