The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that the town of Hartford must turn over records about a 2010 incident when a man was beaten, pepper-sprayed and dragged from his own home by town police. The court’s decision reverses a lower court ruling that restricted full access to the records.
Last week, Wayne Burwell filed a federal civil lawsuit against officers and town officials. He alleged that police targeted him and used excessive force when they were called to his house on a report of a possible break-in because he’s African American.
VTDigger.org Editor Anne Galloway had previously requested police records concerning Burwell’s arrest, hoping to learn if police may have treated him differently because of his race. But police refused, claiming that the records were exempt from Vermont’s public records act.
"The police department in the town of Hartford was denying that this man had been arrested," said Allen Gilbert with the ACLU of Vermont.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument and concluded that Burwell was in fact under arrest. Gilbert characterizes the decision as "a major win in the ongoing fight for open government." Still, he says there’s a lot more that has to get done.
"The court in another decision earlier this year said that police records involving criminal investigations are off limits permanently and we think that’s the wrong approach that should be used for whether or not the public can see records that are held by police," Gilbert says.
Burwell’s attorney has said that it was hard not to conclude that racial profiling factored in the case. So Allen Gilbert says it’s important to remember that the decision is not just about public records. "Vermont has struggled with the problem of possible racial profiling for quite some time and we really as a state need to get to the bottom of this."
Gilbert says he hopes the decision will encourage news reporters – and the public – to improve government accountability.
PDF: Read the Supreme Court’s decision here.