For the second time in a year, the ACLU of RI is suing the Pawtucket Police Department for violating their obligations under the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Doubling down on their efforts to infringe upon the public’s right to know, the Department has again denied an APRA request for copies of final reports of investigations of alleged police misconduct generated by its Internal Affairs Division (IAD). The denial comes despite a pending ACLU lawsuit against the Department on virtually identical grounds and despite past RI Supreme Court rulings supporting the public’s access to these types of records.
Today’s lawsuit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Cullen, argues that the Department’s refusal to release the records is a clear violation of APRA. The suit was filed on behalf of Exeter resident Jennifer Cox, a member of the RI Accountability Project (RIAP), a non-partisan group that promotes transparency in local government and law enforcement. As part of its work, RIAP maintains a publicly available database of reports generated by the IADs of police departments across the state, information it obtains via APRA.
“The Pawtucket Police Department’s continued refusal to disclose internal affairs records is in complete disregard of their obligations under the Access to Public Records Act and is unlawful, said ACLU attorney Cullen. “Their spurious reasons for denying these requests suggest a willful disregard for transparency and accountability.”
In April, Ms. Cox submitted an APRA request for the police department’s “last 10 completed Internal Affairs reports.” As the complaint notes, Ms. Cox expected that, as is customary, the requested records would be produced with certain redactions to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in the reports. Later in the month, however, Ms. Cox received a letter that her request for six of the 10 requested records was denied.
Among the smorgasbord of reasons given by Pawtucket Police for denying her those records:
• Several reports “concern complaints filed by citizens who are known to the police and suspected of suffering from mental illness.”
• Other reports “are not subject to disclosure and there is little if any public interest to be advanced in the disclosure of these reports, even if redacted.”
• Still others were denied because disclosure of the requested records, in whole or in part, would “constitute a completely unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In cases dating back decades, the R.I. Supreme Court has ruled that these records are public documents. Yet today’s complaint follows another pending ACLU lawsuit filed against Pawtucket last year. In that case, the Department made a distinction between IAD reports generated as a result of citizen complaints and IAD reports initiated internally, claiming that the latter are exempt from disclosure under APRA. That lawsuit argues there is no legal basis for such a distinction. Today’s lawsuit also seeks to overturn the Department’s denials as unwarranted and unlawful.
ACLU plaintiff Cox said today: “I, along with the Rhode Island Accountability Project, am very concerned about these denials from the Pawtucket Police Department. It is our experience that the City of Pawtucket consistently manufactures specious arguments to deny the release of reports that would shed light on the performance of the Professional Standards division and maintain the integrity of the department. We view these disingenuous denials as a concerted effort to maintain a secret report policy in violation of the access to public records act.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said that the ACLU planned to file motions in both cases seeking expedited consideration of the complaints in light of the continued and significant infringement the denials have on the public’s right to know.
Today’s effort is part of the ACLU of RI’s ongoing work to promote open and transparent government through the enforcement of the Access to Public Records Act.
The lawsuit can be found here.
The APRA request and the Police Department's response can be found here and here.
Information about last year's lawsuit against the Department, which is still pending, can be found here.