ACLU MOUNTS TWO-PRONGED ATTACK TO MAKE RECORDS OF POLICE MISCONDUCT PUBLIC

JULY 22, 2019

Calling it “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,” the ACLU of Rhode Island has launched a two-pronged attack on a 2017 Attorney General ruling that allows police to keep secret some of its reports of police misconduct. In simultaneous appeals to the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the Attorney General, ACLU of RI cooperating attorney James Cullen is asking for a reversal of that ruling.

In two major Access to Public Records Act (APRA) lawsuits filed in past years by the ACLU, the R.I. 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, a 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. That quickly changed.

Later that year, the ACLU filed an APRA lawsuit against the Pawtucket Police Department on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos, who was stymied from obtaining those internally-generated police misconduct final reports. 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. However, Pawtucket police, relying on the Piskunov opinion, refused to turn over 57 separate internal investigatory findings, prompting the ACLU to sue. In March, however, RI Superior Court Judge Melissa Long sided with the police and held that additional hearings were necessary to determine whether those records had to be released under APRA.

In a court brief filed today, the ACLU has asked the R.I. Supreme Court to review and overturn that decision, stating that 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.”

Separately, Lyssikatos was denied access to similar records in April by the Woonsocket Police Department, which also relied on Piskunov in rejecting his request for misconduct reports. In response, ACLU attorney Cullen has filed with the Attorney General a formal appeal of that denial, asking that his 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.”  The formal appeal to the Attorney General concludes:

“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, Lyssikatos agreed, to no avail, to allow personally-identifiable information from the reports to be redacted.

ACLU cooperating attorney Cullen said today: “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.  However initiated, these reports of investigations conducted by the internal affairs department shed light on one of the core functions of government – policing.”

Lyssikatos added: “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. 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 stated: “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.”

Earlier this year, Judge Long upheld thousands of questionable redactions made by the previous Attorney General in releasing records 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. After the ACLU appealed that ruling, Attorney General Neronha reexamined the records and released almost all of them in unredacted form.

JULY 22, 2019, “ACLU MOUNTS TWO-PRONGED ATTACK TO MAKE RECORDS OF POLICE MISCONDUCT PUBLIC”, https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-mounts-two-pronged-attack-make-records-police-misconduct-public

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ACLU of Indiana Sends Letter to Elkhart Mayor Regarding Police Department Use of Excessive Force

December 4, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS – The ACLU of Indiana today sent a letter to Elkhart Mayor, Tim Neese, offering recommendations for responding to misconduct and use of excessive force within the Elkhart Police Department.

“Elkhart’s history of police misconduct requires a thorough examination and policy recommendation by a proven, independent third-party expert such as, the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Center for Policing Equity or the NYU Policing Project,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana. “We urge Mayor Neese and the Board of Public Safety to abandon any proposal that would establish a review board consisting solely of law enforcement officers.”

According to the letter, the Mayor’s call for an investigation of the Department of Justice is not realistic at this time, because the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been largely stripped of its power to negotiate consent decrees and other settlement agreements regulating patterns and practices of police enforcement. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has pulled back from providing this kind of state investigative reform.

“It is simply not realistic to expect that the Justice Department will be able to carry out the kind of investigation and reform that the Elkhart Police Department needs,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana. “We hope that Mayor Neese will take these recommendations to heart as he works to ensure that Elkhart is a safe and welcoming city, in which all community members can share confidence and trust in their local law enforcement and elected officials.”

The full text of the letter is available here:  https://www.aclu-in.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/18_12_04_elkhart_mayor_police.pdf

December 4, 2018, “ACLU of Indiana Sends Letter to Elkhart Mayor Regarding Police Department Use of Excessive Force”, https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-indiana-sends-letter-elkhart-mayor-regarding-police-department-use-excessive-force

ACLU sues St. Louis alleging police misconduct during protests

ACLU sues St. Louis alleging police misconduct during protests
© Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri on Friday filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Louis alleging police officers engaged in “unlawful and unconstitutional actions” against demonstrators protesting the acquittal of a white former police officer in the death of a black motorist.

The lawsuit accused police of improperly using chemical weapons, interfering with video of police activity and unlawfully detaining protesters at a Sunday demonstration when officers used a tactic called “kettling” to corral protesters.

The ACLU of Missouri filed the lawsuit on behalf of two women — Maleeha Ahmad and Alison Dreith — who participated in the protests. Both women were allegedly sprayed in the face with pepper spray without warning on Sept. 15.Last week, a judge found former police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, touching off days of protest in downtown St. Louis.

Stockley shot Smith after a high-speed chase. According to a court document, the police officer was heard saying during the chase that he was “going to kill this motherf—er, don’t you know it.”

The former officer said Smith was holding a gun, but only Stockley’s DNA was found on the weapon. Prosecutors allege that he planted the gun.

Police have arrested more than 160 protesters since demonstrations began on Sept. 15.

A hundred twenty people were arrested Sunday night during a demonstration in downtown St. Louis, when police used “kettling” — a method of grouping protestors in a small area for crowd control — to box in protesters.

Police had previously ordered protesters to disperse. But many people argued that they were unable to leave the area, because police had effectively blocked them from doing so, consequently leading to the arrests.

Connecticut Troopers Sued Over Arrest of Protester

A civil liberties group filed a lawsuit against three Connecticut state troopers and said they illegally retaliated against a protester at a drunken driving checkpoint by arresting him on bogus criminal charges.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut filed a lawsuit Thursday against troopers John Barone, Patrick Torneo and John Jacobi for alleged civil rights violations.

The lawsuit says Barone confiscated Michael Picard’s legally carried pistol, pistol permit and camera at a sobriety checkpoint in West Hartford on Sept. 11, 2015, on the pretext of public complaints.

The ACLU says the troopers then got together and fabricated charges, not knowing that they were still being recorded by Picard’s camera.

The charges against Picard were later dismissed in court.

A state police spokeswoman and the three troopers didn’t immediately return messages Thursday and the state attorney general’s office declined to comment.

The state police union, however, released a statement on Friday, calling the lawsuit “frivilous” and said the video was “deceptively edited.” They went on to say that the fact that the charges against Picard were dropped does not mean he is innocent.

“The Troopers in this case – and all State Troopers — respect the rights of every citizen while putting their own lives on the line to keep the public safe and snsure the law is enforced,” a statement from the union says.

“While some use their free time to harass and provoke law enforcement officers who are trying to save lives by identifying drunk (sic) drivers, the men and women of the Connecticut State Police Union appreciate that the vast majority of people understand the dangerous work our Troopers do to keep us all safe,” the statement says.