The Rhode Island Accountability Project keeps a state-wide database of police misconduct reports. Dimitri Lyssikatos of the Accountability Project filed suit in 2017, after the Pawtucket Police Department refused to release 57 internal-affairs reports, citing privacy concerns.
Superior Court Judge Melissa Long ruled more hearings are needed to weigh those concerns against state open records laws, in a so-called “balancing test.”
Two previous Supreme Court decisions in the state required police departments to release misconduct reports to the public. Those cases were slightly different because they dealt with citizen complaints, not internal reports. James Cullen, the lawyer in the case, argued the same standard should apply.
“Whether it’s Joe Blogs on the street who comes forward and makes that complaint or another officer comes forward and says, I witnessed Officer X, Y, or Z, abusing an arrestee, we don’t see any real distinction between the two,” Cullen said.
Steven Brown, director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, called the decision disappointing and said he’s concerned about the precedent set by this ruling.
“As a result, I expect that there may be some other police departments that will start withholding these records as well. But we’re hopeful that most police departments will continue to provide these records as they had in the past,” Brown commented.
Brown added, he sees this as part of a larger pattern of government agencies making it more difficult to gain access to public records.
“We are consistently seeing public bodies come up with new ways to make it more difficult for the public to gain access to records,” Brown said. “This is just the latest example of that, and why the open records law needs to be strengthened.”
The Brown and Cullen said they’re still discussing whether to appeal the ruling.
The Pawtucket Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.