Citing widespread violations of the state’s open records law this summer by government officials, the Rhode Island ACLU today released a report calling for strong legislative reform to address the problem. Claiming that failure to comply with the open records law “seems to have reached a level of disregard that demands a forceful response,” the report offers a series of recommendations for strengthening the law.
The report examines five incidents this summer in which, at separate times, a range of agencies – the Department of Environmental Management, the Department of Administration, the R.I. State Police, the City of Providence and the Warwick Police Department – rejected requests for public records.
Among other incidents, the report examines the non-disclosure of police reports and DEM records in the recent Barrington boating accident tragedy where a 17-year old was killed; the secrecy surrounding the settlement of a lawsuit involving the Providence police department cheating scandal; and the initial refusal by the Warwick Police Department to release the arrest report of an individual charged with murder. The report calls especially alarming the fact that “in each case, specific provisions of the open records law had been explicitly adopted by the General Assembly to ensure access to the particular documents that had been requested.”
The report also calls “extremely disturbing” the fact that three of the denials discussed involve access to arrest reports. The report states that it has been “a long-standing source of frustration for open government advocates that police departments in particular seem all-too-eager to simply ignore the commands of the Access to Public Records Act.”
The report recommends a number of legislative revisions to the Act to address this troubling series of events. They include requiring agencies to certify that the individuals responsible for handling open records requests have been trained in the statute’s requirements; increasing the fines for violations of the law; requiring waivers of any copying and search fees if an agency fails to produce records in a timely manner; reducing the amount of time for public bodies to respond to open records requests; requiring expedited access to arrest reports; and prohibiting public bodies from demanding personal information of requesters before releasing public documents.