Court denies motion seeking police records

Court denies motion seeking police records

PROVIDENCE – In “a major blow to the public’s right to know,” as the Rhode Island ACLU describes it, Superior Court Judge Melissa Long on Monday ruled that the Pawtucket Police Department is not required, pending further court proceedings, to release reports of police officer misconduct that are generated by its Internal Affairs Division. Instead, the judge concluded that additional hearings are necessary to determine whether the records must be released under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

The judge’s ruling from the bench came in a lawsuit filed two years ago by ACLU cooperating attorney James Cullen on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project, a non-partisan organization promoting 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 internal affairs units across the state, information routinely gathered through records requests.

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 Office of the Attorney General, made that distinction in denying Lyssikatos public access to the reports. The ACLU lawsuit argued that that premise was completely unwarranted, but the judge disagreed.

 Lyssikatos, on behalf of RIAP, had 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 internal affairs division that were not the result of citizen complaints. He agreed to allow personally identifiable information from the reports to be redacted, states a release. 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 the claims, police 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.”

Lyssikatos noted that, until the Attorney General’s 2017 advisory opinion making a distinction between citizen complaints and internal complaints, police departments routinely provided those reports. Attorney Cullen said today he was “disappointed” in the ruling.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added, “As a result of today’s decision, it may be months or years before the public gets to look at these important public records.”

The ACLU is considering next steps in the case, including a possible appeal to the R.I. Supreme Court.

City officials issued a response to Monday’s ruling.

“The city of Pawtucket’s priority when it comes to public information is to be as open and transparent as possible,” it states. “There is a balance between providing the public with as much information as we can and protecting private or confidential information that we as a city must strike. While the city does not comment on specific ongoing litigation, we respect the judicial process and the diligence that will go into reviewing this matter.”