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.



ACLU sues Pawtucket police over denying requests for misconduct reports

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.


“ACLU sues Pawtucket police over denying requests for misconduct reports”,

Former Newport Police Officer, FOP President Pleads Guilty to Fraud

Christopher Hayes, former Newport police officer and union president, pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to fraud.

NEWPORT, RI—A former Newport police sergeant pleaded guilty in Providence federal court Monday to wire fraud. Christopher Hayes, 49, of Middletown, is also a former union president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Newport Lodge No. 8.

As part of a plea agreement, Hayes admitted he took union money to pay his bills and for personal use.

“An investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office, U.S. Department of Labor – Office of Inspector General and Office of Labor Management Standards, and the Rhode Island State Police determined that Hayes fraudulently converted approximately $71,523 in FOP funds for his own personal use,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Sentencing is scheduled for July 21.

Jury acquits 4’11” man of assaulting 6’+ police officers


A Superior Court jury on Friday acquitted a Joshua Robinson, 25, of Providence of assaulting two city police officers and resisting arrest in an encounter that left him bloodied, with a gash to his forehead.

PROVIDENCE — A Superior Court jury on Friday acquitted a 25-year-old city man of assaulting two Providence police officers and resisting arrest in an encounter in March 2013 that left him bloodied, with a gash to his forehead.

The jury of six men and six women found Joshua Robinson not guilty of two simple assault counts and one of resisting arrest after deliberating about three-and-a-half hours.

The verdict elated a crowd of about 25 supporters, who were convinced of Robinson’s innocence and that he had been charged only to cover up a brutal beating by Sgt. David Allen. They wept, embraced and yelled out in celebration.

Robinson, who stands 4 feet 11 inches, as compared to the officers’ 6 feet, declined comment afterward, but cried and hugged his lawyer, Dawn Huntley, as the verdict was read.

Huntley said her client had been vindicated after previously being convicted of the crimes in a District Court bench trial. He appealed the conviction by Judge Elaine T. Bucci to Superior Court, where his two-week trial was overseen by Judge William E. Carnes Jr.

“I think it erodes the public trust when you have a department who insulates under the code of silence. Any officer who’s done wrong, they have a duty to ferret them out,” Huntley said. “The community needs to know that they are also protected from the Police Department.”

She said she hoped the verdict would bring about change in the department and the community.

Allen testified that Robinson resisted arrest after running a stop sign around 2:30 a.m. on March 5, 2013, and that he saw him stuff bags of crack cocaine in his mouth. No drugs were found at the scene.

Terrence Jones, a self-described civil rights investigator and former Philadelphia police officer, said he planned to hold the Providence police officers who testified during the trial accountable for their lies and “perjury.”

“Stop covering up police. It comes from the top down,” said Jones, who investigated the case at the request of Huntley and her co-counsel, Carl Ricci.

Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements said, “We respect the criminal justice process, and we certainly respect the jury.” He declined to comment further.

The case caught the attention of civil-rights advocates, dozens of whom observed closing arguments Thursday, because of photos of Robinson’s bruised, bloodied and swollen face after the incident. Robinson was taken to Rhode Island Hospital for treatment of the injuries, which required stitches and included two black eyes.

Several onlookers, who did not identify themselves, lashed out angrily after the verdict, taking aim at closing statements by Special Assistant Attorney General Joseph McBurney, who prosecuted with John Perrotta.

McBurney disputed any notion of a cover-up by police and argued that Robinson’s resistance brought on the violent struggle. He asserted that Robinson had probably swallowed the drugs.

Robinson, meanwhile, has filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court, accusing Allen and Officers Christopher Ziroli, Mark Hubbard, Sean Lafferty, Matthew McGloin, Matthew Rampone, Jerome Lynch, Clifford Torres and Joseph Donnelly of using excessive force, assault, battery, false arrest and engaging in malicious prosecution.

He alleges that the department’s civilian complaint procedures perpetuate a climate of misconduct by failing to properly investigate allegations and discipline officers. He is seeking unspecified damages.


Suspended Woonsocket officer accused of assaulting student

Providence police officer charged with stealing coupons from newspaper delivery service

Providence police officer charged with stealing coupons from newspaper delivery service

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A veteran Providence police officer was nabbed in an early morning sting and is accused of stealing inserts, fliers and coupons that go into newspapers.

Jesse Ferrell, 49, of Providence, was arrested by members of the Providence Police Office of Professional Responsibility Friday morning attempting to break into a facility on Harris Ave., according to Commander Thomas Oates.

Oates said the police department received a complaint “about two weeks ago” from business “Distribution Services of Rhode Island” at 135 Harris Ave., in Providence.

“The complaint they had was they had materials there that are placed into the newspapers as part of the home distribution [like] coupons, inserts and fliers that was being stolen,” Oates said. “They realized this potentially had been going back four to six weeks, maybe longer.”

Oates said the company is an independent contractor that delivers the Providence Journal.

Investigators set up surveillance on the Harris Ave. building when they observed Ferrell, according to Oates. He was taken into custody around 6 a.m. and was off-duty at the time.

He declined to say what Ferrell was doing with the coupons and fliers he was allegedly stealing saying the investigation is ongoing.

Ferrell has been charged with breaking and entering and larceny and was arraigned before a justice of the peace at Providence police headquarters Friday evening.

He was released on $10,000 personal recognizance. He is due back in court in July for a pre-trial hearing.

Ferrell has been suspended without pay, according to Oates.

“He’s a well-liked officer,” said Sgt. Bob Boehm, the president of the Providence Police Union. “So this is a surprise to us.”

Boehm says the union was notified of Ferrell’s arrest Friday morning. Boehm said while the union typically defends officers who are falsely accused of wrongdoing, it has not formed an opinion on this case yet. He said Ferrell has not contacted the union for advice or legal help.

Efforts to reach Officer Ferrell at his home and by phone were unsuccessful.