The Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU says a recent opinion by Attorney General Peter Neronha makes it more difficult for citizens to get information about police misconduct.

Neronha’s ruling came in response to an earlier complaint filed by the ACLU against the Narragansett Police Department for refusing to release any copies of its final investigations of police misconduct.

The ACLU is representing Dmitri Lyssikatos, who had made a request to Narragansett Police under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) for final reports into police misconduct from 2015 to 2018.

According to Neronha’s opinion, police, represented by Assistant Solicitor Andrew Berg, maintained that the nondisclosure of 24 pertinent internal affairs report was proper.

Of the 24 reports, four were sustained, Neronha wrote. The department opposed releasing the documents based in part on concerns that, even with redactions, accused officers could be identified. Neronha said the department also argued that releasing the records was prohibited by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

But, Neronha wrote, his office was hard-pressed to believe that privacy concerns trump the public interest for each of the entire 24 reports. He gave the department 20 business days from the August 17 written opinion to reassess its response on the records request.

Steven Brown, executive director of the RI ACLU, said Neronha’s opinion should have come down stronger on the side of transparency.

“It gives a lot of discretion to the police department to decide whether to turn over the records and which ones to turn over,” Brown said. “Instead of being able to access all of them, people are going to have to wait now for a police department to examine every record one by one and come up with a very vague and open-ended balancing determination as to whether to release it.”

Blake Collins, a spokesman for Neronha, said in a statement that Neronha must apply the law as it is written and interpreted by courts.

"The attorney general has consistently advocated for greater transparency and accountability by all public bodies and believes that such transparency is crucial to promoting the public’s confidence in its governmental institutions, including law enforcement," Collins said. "At the same time, the law recognizes that there may be times where legitimate privacy concerns are implicated, and the law has provided a mechanism for protecting those interests."

Under APRA, records maintained by public bodies are public records, unless they are exempt. State law also includes a balancing test pitting the public interest of disclosing records against the “privacy interest” of those named in records.

In an ACLU news release, Lyssikatos offered this comment on his request for the Narragansett records:

“The reports we requested have long been considered public records. It was only after the Rhode Island Accountability Project began to assemble them into a public database that law enforcement and others began their concerted effort to hinder our work by undermining the public records law. In this current climate of distrust and strife, it is especially important that law enforcement agencies remain transparent and accountable. Secrecy breeds corruption, and without the ability to scrutinize how our law enforcement agencies handle internal and external complaints there can be no faith in the integrity of the system.”