ACLU Criticizes Department of Public Safety Proposal to Further Limit Access to Public Records

Posted: Aug, 09, 2011

Less than nine months after adopting regulations restricting the public’s access to arrest reports, the RI Department of Public Safety (DPS) is proposing to hide even more of those records from public view. In preparation for a public hearing scheduled for next Tuesday, the RI ACLU has filed written testimony urging that the proposal be withdrawn.

Under the proposal, any witness statements gathered by the RI State Police would be withheld from the public, even when the statements are part of an initial arrest report. The ACLU called the proposal “yet another attack on transparency” by DPS, arguing that it not only would “improperly expand the Access to Public Record Act’s (APRA) law enforcement exemption,” but would undermine “the statute's requirement that initial arrest reports be public.”

The one-sentence amendment at issue states: "Witness statements taken for incident or arrest reports, though not considered a public record, may be released to the individual from whom the statement was taken, only if no exemptions apply." However, the ACLU's testimony argues that “it is simply incorrect that witness statements are ‘not considered a public record.’  ‟No category of police record -- whether witness statements or any other type of document – is per se exempt from disclosure under APRA‟s law enforcement records exemption.”

The ACLU called “even more egregious” the proposal’s specific attempt to make secret any witness statements that appear in initial arrest reports, since APRA explicitly provides that “records or reports reflecting the initial arrest of an adult … shall be public.” The DPS proposal, said the ACLU, “would allow the core of some arrest reports to be significantly censored, despite the statute’s explicit reference to arrest reports being public.” As a result, the public will often not know the basis for, and strength of, a State Police decision to arrest a person.

This past January, over the objections of open government groups, DPS adopted rules allowing  it  to  engage  in  a  case-by-case  “balancing  test”  in  deciding  whether  to  release otherwise-public information  under  APRA.  This latest proposal takes those rules one step further by making an entire category of information – witness statements – secret.

In recent years, the State Police have been the main opponents of legislation that would strengthen APRA. RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “Scrutiny of arrest reports is essential in order to make sure that proper procedures are being followed by law enforcement agencies and arrests are taking place in a lawful manner. This latest effort by the State Police to weaken public oversight undercuts a major foundation of the open records law.  We hope the proposal will be withdrawn.”