Open Government Groups Decry State Police Regulations Limiting Access to Public Records
Posted: January 21, 2011|Category: Open Government
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.