Potential new legislation would modify access to public records — again

Feb 8, 2022, 4:21 PM | Updated: 4:28 pm
access to public records...
Side by side images of a police officer, the scales of justice, and a member of the press. (Canva)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would close public access to records containing statements made by police and other public workers is making its way through the Utah State Legislature.

It involves Garrity protections, which shields public employees from being compelled to make statements or provide information that can later be used against them in a criminal proceeding.

The Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, allows public access to records from government entities. But not all records, right now there are dozens of protected records codified in Utah law.

Access to public records that contain statements made during administrative investigations would be limited if this as-yet-unnamed bill became law.

How the bill works

Sen. Curtis Bramble co-sponsored the bill. It if passes, there will be conditions that may exempt certain records from being released. 

“That record has to be looked at from the perspective of balancing the public’s right to know with the interest of the individual who’s the subject of the record,” Bramble said.

He says it’s possible to still release a record that contains a Garrity Statement, but, with certain sections redacted.

But what about public access?

First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt says this is not a bill that would benefit most Utahns.

“Putting these records off-limits to the public is going to erode public trust because the public won’t be able to find out what happened from the officer’s perspective, or whether the officer followed departmental policy, or whether public policy is in fact appropriate,” Hunt said.

That’s a sentiment shared by former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who said he supports public access to records with so-called Garrity statements. He says transparency creates public trust. 

Right now, records with statements from public employees, made during an administrative investigation, are open to the public.

Bramble says this legislation is about balancing public knowledge with a public worker’s privacy.

Truth in reporting

Eric S. Peterson, board president of The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists recently weighed in on the difficulty of balancing two important needs — those of the police officer involving self-recrimination, and those of the public, including journalists, for government transparency.

“For journalists, the eye is always to understanding the truth of a situation; we know that the truth leads to better outcomes for everyone.

Peterson continued, by saying that Rep. Wilcox’s bill “would hide Garrity statements from view, removing the public’s ability “to hold departments accountable for when officers aren’t going “by the book”.”

The case in point

A recent request by The Salt Lake Tribune outlines the need for clarity in cases where a public servant’s Garrity protections may clash with police department transparency. 

According to the newspaper, they are asking a judge to determine whether interviews conducted after a police shooting are considered to be public records, and therefore accessible to media outlets or anybody who seeks access to the workings of government.

Kira Hoffelmeyer and Simone Seikaly contributed to this report.

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Potential new legislation would modify access to public records — again