Arizona legislators take steps to restrict information

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PHOENIX (AP) - It was the highest-profile criminal trial in Arizona in years, and large segments of it unfolded in private.

In a highly unusual move, the judge kicked the public and reporters out of the courtroom at the request of convicted murderer Jodi Arias, who testified for two days behind closed doors because she was uncomfortable speaking up in open court. On hundreds of other occasions, the judge discussed important matters inside chambers or in a courtroom where the voices of attorneys were drowned out by a white-noise machine.

The lack of transparency in the Arias trial is part of a bigger trend in Arizona in which the public's access to the workings of government has been under attack on several fronts.

The Legislature has taken up several efforts that have angered open government advocates, including new rules enacted in the Arizona House to give Republicans more latitude in closing their caucuses to the public.

With police shootings a hot topic around the country, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to let police agencies withhold for 90 days the identities of officers who are involved in incidents that resulted in serious injuries or death. Other bills would keep the names of lottery winners private for 90 days and create new rules that stipulate police body cameras are not a public record.

Dan Barr, an attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said lawmakers are kidding themselves if they think restrictions will lessen the public's thirst for information.

"You are just going to get speculation instead of actual facts," Barr said.

Sen. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills who proposed the lottery and body camera bills, said claims of the public's declining access to information are overblown and based on other more restrictive bills that have stalled in the Legislature, including an effort that critics said would have gutted Arizona's open meetings law. The measure would have let city councils, school boards and other leaders talk in secret.

"Failed attempts aren't examples of non-transparency," said Kavanagh, a former police officer who called his two proposals sensible attempts to protect privacy.

Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican from the city of Maricopa, said his proposal to let police temporarily withhold the identities of officers in serious and deadly shootings is an attempt to protect officers and their families from anyone who would want to hurt them.

Smith cited shooting incidents in Pinal County and Phoenix in which he said police were forced to turn over records under current law.

Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, which opposes Smith's proposal, said withholding the names of officers would only increase tensions between police and the community.

Soler said current public records law already lets police agencies withhold the identities of officers in cases in which their safety is at risk.

While Kavanagh's body camera bill would still declare that such recordings wouldn't be public records, changes were recently made to the proposal to keep it subject to the state's public records process.

The lawmaker said the change means the public could still try to get the records, even though the proposal says the recordings wouldn't be a public record. "Any objection isn't substantive - it's semantical," Kavanagh said.

Paula Casey, executive director for the Arizona Newspapers Association, said the courts won't likely side with news organizations if body camera recordings aren't deemed a public record. But the change allowing the recordings to be sought under public records law makes it more palatable, she said.

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