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Open Government Groups Decry State Police Regulations Limiting Access to Public Records

Posted: January 21, 2011|Category: Open Government

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A number of open government groups expressed deep concern today over regulations adopted by the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety (DPS) that would significantly restrict the information publicly available from state police agencies under DPS’s jurisdiction, including the State Police. The objections, from the Rhode Island ACLU, Common Cause Rhode Island and ACCESS/RI, also targeted the questionable process by which the regulations were adopted.

As enacted, the rules allow DPS to withhold from the public information from arrest reports, daily police logs and any other agency documents and policies even if the information is not deemed exempt  from  public  disclosure  under  the  Access  to  Public  Records  Act  (APRA).  Specifically,  the regulations authorize DPS to engage in a “balancing test” to be “applied on a case-by-case basis” as to whether to release information that is otherwise public under APRA.  The result is that even information from arrest reports, which APRA explicitly provides “shall be public,” may be censored by the DPS before being released.

Responding to these regulations, Barbara Meagher, president, ACCESS/RI, said, “We’re very worried that Rhode Islanders will not know, and will not be able to find out, what the police are doing in their communities once the State Police put these regulations into effect.”

The open government groups also sharply criticized the process by which the regulations were adopted. The “balancing test” language was not even in the proposal submitted by DPS for the public hearing held  last  month.  Instead,  only  hours  before  the  public  hearing was  held,  the  Department unveiled a revised draft of the regulations that for the first time included some of the “balancing test” language that appears in the final version. None of the groups testifying at the public hearing had a meaningful  opportunity  to  review,  much  less  comment  on,  the  revised  draft.  Common  Cause/RI executive director John Marion said: “When a public agency promulgates new rules, the public has the right to be heard. The Department of Public Safety did not afford the public their rights in this instance by providing insufficient advance access to the final rules.”

The  regulations  as  they were  initially  proposed  raised  related,  but  different,  concerns.  For example, under the initial draft of the regulations, only five specific facts about an arrest would be made public: the arrestee’s name, address, age, location of arrest, and name of arresting officer. Among the many pieces of information missing from this short list  was the actual charge brought against the individual, and the date and time of the arrest. The list explicitly barred from disclosure such innocuous information as the arrestee’s race and eye and hair color. Although those explicit exclusions were removed from the final regulations, the new “balancing test” language would continue to authorize their redaction.

Within the last few years, the RI State Police have been the main opponents of legislation that would strengthen APRA, and the agency convinced former Governor Donald Carcieri to veto this legislation in 2008.   RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said: “Adoption of these regulations emphasizes the need for the General Assembly to enact legislation this year to strengthen the public’s right to know. The support for government secrecy underlying these regulations undermines all Rhode Islanders’ rights to monitor and oversee the actions of public bodies.”

The  open  government  groups  are  considering next steps  to  take  in light  of  the  significant setback to the public’s right to know that the new regulations sanction.

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