Calling it a “flagrant breach” of the state’s Access to Public Records Act, the ACLU of Rhode Island has today filed with the Attorney General a complaint against the Narragansett Police Department for refusing to release any copies of its final investigations of complaints of police misconduct. The complaint was filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Cullen on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project.
In response to an open records request filed by Lyssikatos last September, the police department claimed that all the internal affairs reports were confidential, despite Rhode Island Supreme Court decisions dating back more than 30 years that have held to the contrary.
The ACLU complaint also takes aim at a 2017 APRA advisory opinion by the Attorney General’s office, Piskunov v. Town of Narragansett, which made a distinction between citizen-generated and internally-initiated complaints of misconduct. Because the earlier R.I. Supreme Court rulings in favor of public access happened to involve requests for reports involving citizen-generated complaints of misconduct, the Piskunov opinion seized upon that fact to hold that the Narragansett Police Department could withhold their final reports of misconduct investigations if they were initiated internally. Besides Narragansett, the ACLU is presently in court challenging the only other known police department – Pawtucket – that relies on Piskunov to keep these records of misconduct secret. However, even Pawtucket has made public its citizen-generated complaint reports, which Narragansett refused to do.
The complaint filed with the Attorney General states:
The Town of Narragansett Police Department’s position that the internal affairs reports requested by Mr. Lyssikatos are not public documents is unsupported by any statutory or legal authority. Rhode Island law is clear that internal affairs reports—whatever their source—are public records and must be disclosed pursuant to an appropriate request, although personally identifiable information may be redacted from them.
Specifically addressing the distinction between citizen- and internally-generated complaints, the ACLU letter further argues:
“The Piskunov opinion has cast a pall over police department accountability and transparency and is being used to hinder the public’s right to know in significant ways. We request that your office take this opportunity to reconsider and reverse that pronouncement, and conclude that the text and intent of the APRA . . . compel the conclusion that internally-generated reports regarding alleged police misconduct, no less than citizen-generated reports, are public records.”
Lyssikatos said today: “Rhode Islanders should be exceedingly concerned with the misleading attacks on long standing public records opinions. We are currently witnessing a concerted attempt by law enforcement officials to undermine the Rhode Island access to public records act in an effort to stifle the public's right to open and transparent government. It is the people’s duty to fight this type of secrecy as it breeds corruption and fosters the disconnect between the people and their public servants.”
ACLU cooperating attorney Cullen added: “The Town of Narragansett’s response to the APRA request in this case ignores Rhode Island law and is a flagrant breach of both the letter and spirit of the APRA. Unfortunately, this is all too common in our state. Hopefully the Attorney General can help restore the APRA and reinforce the idea that disclosure of public records should be the norm, not the exception.”