PAWTUCKET — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Monday said it is launching a “two-pronged attack” to make records of Pawtucket and Woonsocket police misconduct public.
In 2017, the ACLU filed an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) lawsuit against the Pawtucket Police Department on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, whose request for internally-generated police misconduct final reports were denied. Lyssikatos is a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project, a non-partisan organization which promotes governmental accountability and maintains a publicly available database of police misconduct reports.
According to the ACLU, Pawtucket police, relying on a 2017 Attorney General ruling that allows police to keep secret some of its reports of police misconduct, refused to turn over 57 separate internal investigatory findings to Lyssikatos, prompting the ACLU to sue.
In March of this year, Superior Court Judge Melissa Long, in ruling on the lawsuit, sided with the police, saying additional hearings were necessary to determine whether those records had to be released under APRA.
Lyssikatos had also been denied access to similar records this past April by the Woonsocket Police Department, which also relied on the Attorney General’s 2017 ruling in rejecting his request for misconduct reports.
In a court brief filed Monday, the ACLU has asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to review and overturn the lower court’s decision in the Pawtucket case, saying Judge Long’s ruling “invites public bodies to use unnecessary procedural hurdles to block APRA requests (and) imposes significant transaction costs that most applicants for the release of records cannot afford.”
As for the Woonsocket case, ACLU attorney James D. Cullen has filed with the Attorney General a formal appeal of that department’s denial, asking that the AG’s office overturn its 2017 opinion. Calling the Woonsocket Police Department’s denial “a flagrant breach of Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act,” the appeal to the AG argues that it “highlights the faulty and problematic nature” of the 2017 opinion “which has become an increasingly-used tool by police departments to shield themselves from public accountability.”
In two major APRA lawsuits filed in past years by the ACLU, the state Supreme Court has ruled that the public is entitled to obtain final reports of investigations of police misconduct. Although both cases involved requests for reports involving citizen-generated complaints of misconduct, the court rulings did not propound any distinction between investigations prompted by civilians and those initiated by a police department itself.
However, the 2017 APRA advisory opinion by the Attorney General’s office – Piskunov v. Town of Narragansett – approved such a distinction and held in that case that the Narragansett Police Department could withhold their final reports of misconduct investigations if they were initiated internally. Until that ruling, police departments had routinely provided those reports.
The ACLU’s formal appeal to the Attorney General, states, “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.”
In seeking the records from both Pawtucket and Woonsocket Police Departments, the ACLU said Lyssikatos agreed – to no avail – to allow personally-identifiable information from the reports to be redacted.
“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,” Cullen said. “However initiated, these reports of investigations conducted by the internal affairs department shed light on one of the core functions of government – policing.”
“The idea that internally generated investigations demand greater privacy than those initiated by the public only serves to foster the disconnect between the public and law enforcement,” said Lyssikatos. “The Rhode Island Accountability Project was, and in some cases still is, receiving internally generated reports and feels strongly that their release is essential in maintaining a single standard of investigative integrity. As it stands now, all a law enforcement agency would have to do to withhold an investigation is beat the public to the initiation of the complaint.”
ACLU of RI Executive Director Steven Brown said the 2017 Attorney General opinion is “one of the most damaging decisions affecting the public’s right to know that has been issued, and a significant obstacle to holding police departments accountable.”
“We are hopeful that the new Attorney General’s promise of greater transparency will lead to a reversal of that unfortunate opinion,” he said.