NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The Narragansett Police Department violated the state’s public records law when it did not make public 14 internal affairs reports of investigations into police misconduct over a four-year period.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha issued the finding on April 15. Neronha directed the department to make the redacted reports available to Dimitri Lyssikatos within 10 business days, at no cost.
“The finding makes clear that, where redactions can adequately address the privacy interests of individuals named, reports that shed light on government conduct (or misconduct) and that relate to the management and direction of a law enforcement agency are public,” Neronha’s finding said.
The Rhode Island ACLU, on behalf of Lyssikatos, had filed a complaint about the matter with Neronha’s office against Narragansett police on March 5, 2020.
Lyssikatos submitted an open records request in September 2019 for the final reports of the department’s internal affairs investigations, according to the complaint. He requested final reports for a four-year period, from Jan. 1, 2015 through Dec. 31, 2018.
The department initially withheld 24 internal affairs reports in their entirety. The department then voluntarily disclosed seven of the reports in response to an earlier finding in the matter by the attorney general’s office.
“Although the IA reports were not automatically required to be disclosed in redacted form, we questioned the department’s determination that none of the 24 reports from the relevant timeframe could be produced in redacted form,” Neronha said in the April 15 finding.
Lyssikatos also agreed that two of the remaining reports were not responsive to his request, but pressed for the disclosure of the remaining 15 reports withheld by the department.
Neronha found that the department should have disclosed 14 of the remaining 15 withheld reports, with redactions to protect the privacy of civilians and police officers involved, and that one report was appropriately withheld on privacy grounds.
Neronha’s office analyzed the request under the Access to Public Records Act and court decisions interpreting the APRA, applying a balancing test that weighed the public’s interest in the information against the privacy interest of the individuals named in the reports.
Some of the reports contain highly personal information about civilians that would raise “significant privacy concerns” if anyone was able to determine the identities of the redacted names, Neronha said.
“The department’s initial decision to withhold some of these reports is understandable given the significant privacy interests, particularly of civilians, implicated by some of these reports. However, we find that careful redaction can permit at least some reasonably segregable portions of each of these 14 reports to be produced consistent with R.I. General Laws,” he said.
Neronha’s 17-page finding delves into the attorney general’s office’s reasoning for why each of the 24 internal affairs reports should or should not be made public.
Among the reports discussed:
“The Department states that this report pertains to an allegation of harassment by one officer against another and that the accused officer was exonerated. The Department argues this report pertained to a personnel issue, not police misconduct, and that disclosure would risk an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The Complainant responds that “[h]arassment is a serious issue and when it is perpetrated by a public servant, worthy of disclosure to the public and public scrutiny.”
And about another report:
“The Department notes that this IA report pertains to an internally generated complaint related to policy violations by two dispatchers who are employed by the Department but are not “officers.”
The Complainant argues that misconduct by dispatchers is encompassed within “police misconduct.”
Examination of a third report notes:
“The Department notes that this IA report pertains to a third-party complaint that an officer was insensitive to a victim during a sexual assault investigation. The Department asserts that disclosure even in heavily redacted form would be prejudicial to the officer who was exonerated and to the victim of the sexual assault who did not wish to pursue a complaint in the first place. The Department notes that these concerns are magnified in light of the sensitive nature of the subject matter of a sexual assault investigation.”
The finding goes on to say about that report that, “While those factors weigh against disclosure, on the other side of the column is the public interest in how the Department investigated this sort of allegation and in the Department’s policies and practices regarding sexual assault investigations, which are discussed in the report. To be sure, disclosure of this report in unredacted form would implicate very significant privacy concerns which would clearly outweigh the public interest in the report. However, we conclude that with appropriate redactions the privacy concerns can be mitigated and “reasonably segregable portions” of the report could have been disclosed.”
Neronha’s office said the Narragansett department could consult with his office if there are questions about redacting documents and encouraged it to do so especially where reports contain highly personal information.
Neronha said his office would not file suit at this time, but that the file remains open pending the department’s response and any response from Lyssikatos.