In a major blow to the public’s right to know, RI Superior Court Judge Melissa Long today 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 (IAD). 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 (APRA).

The judge’s brief ruling from the bench came in a lawsuit filed two years ago by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Cullen  on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project (RIAP), a non-partisan organization which promotes 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 the IADs of police departments across the state, information it routinely obtains through APRA 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 Attorney General’s office, 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 IAD that were not the result of citizen complaints. He agreed to allow personally-identifiable information from the reports to be redacted. 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 these claims, the Department 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. ACLU 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. This is another distressing example of how the former Attorney General’s hostility to the open records law continues to have an impact on the public’s right to know. It is unfortunate that today’s decision fails to uphold the spirit of transparency in government that APRA was designed to promote.”

The ACLU is appealing another recent APRA decision issued by Judge Long, in which she upheld all the redactions made by the Attorney General in releasing records to former state Rep. Patricia Morgan regarding the AG’s expenditure of “Google settlement” funds. Those redactions included the complete blacking out of a two-page memo describing the Attorney General’s purchase of ceremonial lapel pins for the office.

Today’s lawsuit is part of the ACLU of RI’s ongoing effort to promote open and transparent government through the enforcement of the Access to Public Records Act.

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

More information about the case, Lyssikatos v. King, can be found here.