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Connecticut police move toward transparency after Sunshine Week investigation

4 Apr

As cynical journalists often frustrated by stonewalling and secretive government officials, we were expecting the worst when we decided to send a reporter to every police department and state police troop in Connecticut  (103 of them) this spring to test compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.FOIA

And the results were pretty bad in a bunch of cases. The New Haven Police Department public information officer telling a reporter that “we keep secrets here” on that department’s way to an “F” grade sparked outrage from citizens of New Haven and open government advocates across the country.

But departments such as South Windsor showed that they are very serious about complying with the law, embracing public access to information about arrests and police activity, and that they have trained their rank-and-file staff well on these principles. East Haven, one of the most-criticized police departments in the state over the past few years, received a good grade, showing that transparency is a key part of its efforts to reform under federal Justice Department oversight.

Most encouraging has been the response since the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen published the results of our project, and other media outlets, including TV stations, the Associated Press, the New Britain Herald and the Hartford Courant, ran their own stories or editorials about it.

Here’s some of the results tracked by Michelle Tuccitto Sullo and Viktoria Sundqvist, who led this project for us:

  • Several departments who received an “A-” or “B” grade vowed to get an “A” if we do a similar test in the future.
  • The state’s Freedom of Information Commission fielded a spate of calls from local police chiefs requesting special training on compliance with the law after they received less-than-perfect grades.
  • The Norwalk Police Department immediately started posting arrest log information online to improve public access.
  • The Middletown Police Department, which received a pretty good grade of “A-,” sent a memo to all police department employees reminding them of best practices.
  • The West Haven Police Department promised to investigate why a reporter was denied access to information, and plans to train staff. State Police promised a similar investigation of why that happened at Troop G when we visited.
  • Westport police announced that it would be making arrest log information available for public access 24-7 in the lobby of its statoin.
  • New Britain police leadership reminded staff that the press and public should not be denied access to arrest log information.
  • And in New Haven, where a reporter was told, “You’ll never get blotter from us, we are just too damn busy,” and “It is not public information; these are arrests, not convictions,” the department has reversed itself, and now has an arrest log available for public access.

Missing in Connecticut: Investigations editor focuses on police dysfunction and indifference

16 Jan

What would you do if your son or daughter went missing, and police didn’t care? What if they refused to investigate, refused to collect evidence, refused to help you?

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

If your missing child is no longer a child, there’s a good chance of that happening.

Adult missing persons cases are regularly ignored or mishandled by local police departments, who rarely coordinate among themselves and with state and federal agencies and databases even when they do take them seriously.

The subject has been the main focus of Michelle Tuccitto Sullo‘s reporting since she was named investigations editor at the New Haven Register in late November. It’s the first time in more than 20 years that position has existed at the paper as the newsroom reorganizes to focus on investigative and in-depth reporting, breaking news and community engagement.

In addition to traditional reporting on the topic, Michelle has set up a “Missing in CT” Facebook page that almost instantly was taken over by loved ones of the missing. They share updates and reminders of their cases, lobby for changes to law enforcement policy and government resources, encourage each other and inspirational stories from around the country of families who’ve refused to give up the search.

To a great extent, the movement runs on “Mom Power” – 78 percent of those “liking” the Missing in CT Facebook page are women.

Jan Smolinski is their de facto leader. Jan’s dogged pursuit of answers in the disappearance of her then 31-year-old son, Billy, was the catalyst for Michelle’s reporting. Her work has already prompted a change in state law that requires local police departments to take all missing persons cases immediately instead of telling family of adult victims to “wait three days” like the Waterbury police did in Billy’s case.

But there is a huge remaining gap in police policy, coordination and training when it comes to missing persons cases in Connecticut, times 100 in the case of adult missing persons.

In a piece kicking off her work on the subject, Michelle outlines calls for steps as basic as a statewide database of missing persons and making local police aware that federal missing persons and basic crime databases even exist.

CLICK HERE to read “Victim advocate, others call on state to do more to find adults who disappear.”

Read about some of the personal stories behind adult missing persons cases here, here and here.

And as part of her work on the topic, Michelle continues to pursue details of the still-unsolved Smolinski case. She reported January 7 that a key witness in the case, who at one point led police to sites where he claimed to have helped bury Billy Smolinski’s body, had escaped from a halfway house as he was serving out a sentence for lying to police over the matter.

Of course, Jan Smolinski and her network of moms took to Facebook to promote Sullo’s story and urge people with information to call police. The man was captured and sent back to prison less than a week later.

If you have information on the topic of missing persons, or are the loved one of a missing person in Connecticut, contact Michelle at or 203-789-5707.  Follow her on Twitter at @nhrinvestigate.

UPDATE, 2/15/12: Connecticut State Police have announced the formation of a special unit devoted to missing persons cases.

Investigative and in-depth reporting bolstered by ‘Digital First’

28 Nov

“What about the journalism?”

That’s the question media analyst Ken Doctor asked a few months ago about both the philosophy of a “digital first” approach to running newspapers and the newly formed company “Digital First” Media that now oversees both Journal Register Company (including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, among other publications, in Connecticut) and Media News Group (ranging from the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News to the Berkshire Eagle and Lowell Sun in Massachusetts).

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

CEO John Paton has a plan that many see as the best hope for rescuing the newspaper industry (in case you missed it, see the recent New York Times story here, and a more extensive Times interview with Paton here).

Will Paton’s formula of cutting print edition-related costs and emphasizing Flip cameras, mobile phones and Twitter improve local journalism or leave a multi-platformed but shallow and empty reproduction in its place?

At the end of the day, Doctor asked, “Are the readers, the citizens of its communities, better served?”

Without question, Journal Register Company news organizations are serving their communities better in breaking news situations thanks to the philosophy of “Digital First.” Hurricane Irene was a great example. When it comes to speed and use of platforms beyond print – from SMS alerts, to social media, blogging, video – we are light years ahead of where we used to be, and our audience has benefited.

But what about depth, context, investigative reporting?

It has taken longer to bear fruit, but as Digital First shifts emphasis away from the print production process, it is freeing up resources to invest in better journalism. And “slow news” – journalism that delves deeply into a story, that invests staff time in investigative work – has a prominent place alongside the breakneck pace of breaking news alerts.

This morning, we announced a newsroom reorganization in Connecticut that will establish a full-time investigations editor position at the New Haven Register for the first time in more than 20 years. A second full-time position will be devoted to the “explainer” format of in-depth reporting on local and state issues and “fact checking” statements made by politicians, public officials, activists and business leaders.

Mary O'Leary

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, who joined the Register in 1992 and has covered courts and served as Naugatuck Valley bureau chief, will be charged not only with pursuing investigative stories on her own, but in creating a culture of investigative reporting in the newsrooms of the New Haven Register and its sister JRC papers in Connecticut. She’ll team up with staff reporters to pursue stories that the daily grind of a beat don’t allow them to pursue. Michelle draws upon strong knowledge of court and Freedom of Information Act process and award-winning investigative experience in writing about cold case murder and missing persons cases.

New Haven Register Topics Editor Mary O’Leary, who has 31 years of experience covering state government and a variety of other beats at the paper, will be freed from chasing the press conference of the day to focus on in-depth reporting. She will split her time between “explainers” and “fact checking” – both aimed at cutting through the “he said, she said” blizzard of political spin and process to help our readers get to the truth.

We are creating these positions and replacing Michelle and Mary in their old beats, for a big net increase in our “feet on the street” reporting. And we’re doing that by consolidating positions that were focused either entirely or primarily on the process of putting out the print edition of the newspaper.