The ACLU of Rhode Island filed suit in state court Monday against the Pawtucket police, arguing that the department is violating the state’s open-records law by denying requests for reports on police misconduct.
Exeter resident and transparency advocate Jennifer Cox tried to get the last 10 completed Internal Affairs reports from the Pawtucket Police Department back in April, but the department withheld six of those reports on what she considers “disingenuous” grounds.
“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,” Cox, a member of the Rhode Island Accountability Project, said in a written statement. “We view these disingenuous denials as a concerted effort to maintain a secret report policy in violation of the access to public records act.”
It’s the second time in a little over a year that the state ACLU has taken the Pawtucket Police Department to court on claims that the city is improperly denying access to public records under the state’s Access to Public Records Act, known as APRA.
In a lawsuit filed in August 2017, the Rhode Island Accountability Project and the ACLU said the Pawtucket police had refused to release reports that were generated internally, only handing over reports that civilians had prompted.
The law doesn’t make any distinction, the ACLU argued: Internal Affairs reports are public records, even if they have to be redacted. That lawsuit is still pending.
In the case filed Monday, the ACLU of Rhode Island said city solicitor Frank Milos refused to release six of the reports on improper grounds, such as ones in which the civilian who filed the report decided not to pursue complaints.
In two other cases, Milos denied the requests because they were made by “citizens who are known to the police and who are suspected of suffering from mental illness,” the suit said. Milos also rejected one request because the identities of the officers were “known to the APRA Watch.”
Those are improper reasons to reject records requests, the ACLU and Cox argued. ACLU cooperating attorney James Cullen is representing Cox.
Det. Sgt. Timothy Graham of the Pawtucket Police Department said in a statement late Monday that the department had already turned over hundreds of pages to the Accountability Project in the past, and that if the court disagreed with its interpretation of an “unclear” area of state law, the department would change its procedures.
“We understand and respect the role of the ACLU,” Graham said. “The Pawtucket Police Department values both transparency and privacy. We work every single day to effectively balance both while remaining consistent with existing case law and decisions rendered by the Office of the Attorney General.”
The Rhode Island Accountability Project posts the results of its records requests online.