To name or not to name domestic violence offenders

Police grapple with meaning of new state law

A decision by the Redding Police Department to withhold the names and addresses of offenders charged with domestic violence crimes has provoked a conflict that might require an official ruling of the Freedom of Information Commission and possibly a court case to decide.

The change is the result of a new state statute that guarantees confidentiality to the victims of domestic violence, according to Redding police Chief Douglas Fuchs. He believes Redding is the first department in Connecticut to change its policies relative to the statute.

Fuchs said releasing the name or address of the offender in most domestic violence cases results in the release of the victim’s identity, as well.

“In an effort to further protect victims of domestic violence to the fullest extent possible under law,” the new Redding protocol reads, “this department (unless overruled by a higher authority) shall (in addition to not disclosing the name, address or any identifying information relative to the victim) not disclose the name and address of an offender charged in connection with a domestic violence arrest where the releasing of that information would likely also disclose or likely make known the identity of the victim.”

But whether it is the right move and whether it is legal in light of Freedom of Information laws to protect the public’s right to know is unknown.

Fuchs’s action pits a new state law requiring confidentiality for domestic violence victims against an existing law that mandates identification of someone who’s been arrested.

The new law went into effect July 1. It enhances confidentiality for victims by limiting disclosure by a victim of family violence of her or his address or telephone number during a trial and requires that the name and address of a family violence victim remain confidential unless disclosure is ordered by the Superior Court.

The potentially conflicting law requires identification of the record of arrest of any person in Connecticut.

The identification specifically entails disclosure of the name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest, the offense for which the person was arrested, and at least one additional report by the law enforcement agency.

However, legislation that went into effect Oct. 1 exempts law enforcement records from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act under eight circumstances. One of them is “if they were compiled in connection with the detection or investigation of crime and disclosure would not be in the public interest because it would reveal … the name and address of the victim of sexual assault or risk of injury to a minor.”

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.

“The chief there says he is not releasing the names,” Hennick said. ”This 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 “sometimes there are unintended consequences, and this, I think, would be one.”

Keeping victims safe

Easton police Chief Tim Shaw said Easton police still give out the names of the arrested, “but hope our media partners use their best judgment in keeping victims safe.”

“As far as naming the domestic violence arrestee, I would have to research the FOI on this, since currently the suspect’s name is reported,” Shaw said.

Shaw said he understands the Redding Police Department’s stance and supports its efforts.

“It’s obvious that there are two strong sides to each opinion,” Shaw said. “I do think that domestic violence victims need as much protection as we can afford them. I would hope that the press would also police themselves in protecting victims of domestic violence. We are both in the same boat, which is the victim is our No. 1 priority.”

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 Fuchs’s decision will encourage an open discussion in the state.

“What I would say is, I’m not sure if [Fuchs’s decision] is 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 Chief Fuchs and fight for this,” Jarmock said.

Kayte Cwikla-Masas is assistant director of programs and coordinator of the Greater Bridgeport multi-disciplinary team for the Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport.

The center provides free and confidential trauma-informed services and coordinates care for all people — of any age, race and gender — affected by domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull.

Cwikla-Masas said the center agrees with Fuchs’s decision and is in line with Jarmock’s thoughts. “This is not an easy topic for several reasons, but the crux of the debate is whether or not offender accountability trumps possible breach of victim confidentiality,” Cwikla-Masas said. “We strongly believe that a victim’s safety and confidentiality are critically important.

“Posting an offender’s name will likely lead to a victim’s identity being exposed, especially within smaller communities. Not only is it likely that a victim’s identity will be known but also children if there are any within the household. It should be a survivor’s choice to tell their story, and it should not be forced upon them, especially during a time of crisis after police intervention likely involving an arrest.”

Cwikla-Masas said the center appreciate communities and law enforcement agencies talking about the matter, as it is not an easy decision.

“However, we firmly believe that a survivor’s identity should not be exposed by naming their abuser,” she 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 Easton Courier and sister newspapers in the HAN Network have struggled to address over the years.

HAN Network Editorial Director John Kovach agreed 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.

Jarmock said she has considered both sides, and firmly believes the names of abusers should be withheld from the public.

“I do support this policy because it offers confidentiality for the victim. We are, therefore, not outing the perpetrator, but from where I sit, offering confidentiality is the stronger [objective],” Jarmock said.

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.

“Great care has always been given not only to not identify the victim, but not doing anything that would cause a person being abused to hesitate for one second before calling 911,” Kovach said. “The argument has gone back and forth as to whether identifying the arrested person does that. We urge anyone in a domestic violence situation to get the help they need.”

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 contributed to this report.

Police Chief Tim Shaw placed large purple ribbons on all of the Easton Police Department cruisers for the month of October to show support for Domestic Violence Prevention Month.

Police Chief Tim Shaw placed large purple ribbons on all of the Easton Police Department cruisers for the month of October to show support for Domestic Violence Prevention Month.

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

  • fedup

    The logic of withholding the name of the alleged abuser is flawed. Do we do that for those “accused” of other crimes such as child abuse, rape, stalking, assault? We do not. If a complaint is filed with the police and there is an arrest then the public has a right to know.

© HAN Network. All rights reserved. The Easton Courier, 16 Bailey Ave, Ridgefield, CT 06877

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress