In a case with important ramifications for the public’s ability to monitor police misbehavior, the ACLU of Rhode Island sued the Pawtucket Police Department today for failing to release certain reports of alleged police officer misconduct generated by its Internal Affairs Division (IAD). The suit argues that this refusal to release the records is in clear violation of the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA).
In two major APRA lawsuits filed in past years by the ACLU over access to records of police complaints, the R.I. Supreme Court has ruled that the public is entitled to final reports of investigations of police misconduct. Those rulings make no distinction as to whether the investigations were prompted by citizens or the police department itself. However, the Pawtucket Police Department, relying upon opinions issued by the Attorney General’s office, makes that distinction for purposes of granting or denying public access to the reports. Today’s lawsuit seeks to overturn that premise as completely unwarranted.
The lawsuit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys James D. Cullen and R. Kelly Sheridan, is on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project (RIAP), a non-partisan organization which promotes transparency and accountability in local government and state law enforcement. As part of its work, RIAP maintains a publicly available database of reports generated by the IADs of police departments across the state, information it routinely obtains through APRA requests.
Lyssikatos, on behalf of RIAP, submitted an APRA request in February 2017 to the Pawtucket Police Department for the past two years of internally generated reports investigated by the Department’s IAD that were not the result of citizen complaints. In April, he received a response denying the request on the grounds that the records, even if redacted to protect the identities of the police officers and other individuals involved, were “personal individually-identifiable records,” and that they would shed no light on “official acts and workings of government.” The denial further claimed that disclosure of the records would serve a “negligible” public interest.
In making these claims, the Department distinguished between citizen-filed complaints of misconduct, which it has released to RIAP in redacted form, and those initiated internally. The lawsuit argues that there is “no meaningful distinction between internal affairs reports generated as a result of citizen complaints and internal affairs reports generated without an underlying citizen complaint.” Rather, the lawsuit argues that there is a “significant public interest” in those records, stating: “The reports of investigations conducted by the internal affairs department shed light on one of the core functions of government, policing; particularly the operation of the Pawtucket Police Department and the conduct of its officers in the execution of their duties.”
Plaintiff Lyssikatos said today: “Faith in our public servants relies on our ability to scrutinize how the government polices itself. Secrecy in these matters should not be tolerated as it is incompatible with accountability and does nothing but foster distrust.”
“We have the utmost respect and admiration for what police officers across this state do. However, it is essential to an open and transparent society that the public have access to the results of internal police investigations,” said ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Cullen. “There is no meaningful difference between reports generated as a result of citizen complaints and internal complaints. What matters is the result of those investigations, not their source.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “This is yet the latest example of a public body distorting the state’s open records law in order to undermine transparency and hide important information from the public. This cannot be allowed to stand.”
Linda Lotridge Levin, representing the Rhode Island Press Association, noted that two independent APRA audits of police departments in the state conducted sixteen years apart found the Pawtucket Police Department in significant non-compliance with the law both times. She called it a “a definable endemic problem” that “continues to be a problem for the citizens of that city” that “cannot be condoned.”
Today’s lawsuit is part of the ACLU of RI’s ongoing effort to promote open and transparent government through the enforcement of the Access to Public Records Act.