PROVIDENCE – The Attorney General’s Office recently ordered the release of internal affairs (IA) reports detailing police misconduct and neglect of duty, among other complaints, from the Narragansett Police Department (NPD), finding that the department had violated the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Names and other identifying information can be redacted in the released documents, according to the finding.
“In a number of the IA reports we analyzed…, the public interest in disclosure was clear: the allegations concerned official misconduct, the misconduct was sustained, and the report shed light on the Department’s response,” said the Attorney General’s Office in its conclusion.
“All final reports of investigations into police misconduct” completed between 2015 and 2018 were requested, through the APRA, by Dimitri Lyssikatos, cofounder of the Rhode Island Accountability Project. NPD denied the request in its entirety, withholding 24 IA reports, and Lyssikatos subsequently filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office through the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. NPD later voluntarily disclosed seven IA reports, and Lyssikatos pressed for the release of a number of the remaining documents, though both parties agreed two of the reports were not responsive to the initial APRA request.
The Attorney General’s Office last week, applying a balancing test that “weighed the public’s interest in the information against the privacy interest of the individuals named in the reports,” found that NPD should have disclosed 14 of the 15 withheld reports, with redactions to protect the privacy of civilians and law enforcement officers involved, and that one report was appropriately withheld on privacy grounds.
“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,” reads a press release from the Attorney General’s Office detailing the finding.
The reports contain both sustained and unfounded complaints, generated internally and from members of the public, of police misconduct, neglect of duty, and harassment by NPD. In many cases where a member of NPD was found to have violated policy after internal investigation, the member is no longer employed at NPD.
NPD withheld a number of the reports on the basis that disclosure would violate privacy of members of the department, of the public and/or the complainant, even in redacted form. Many of the reports address complaints that involve a member of the public that is “well known” to the community, and were withheld by NPD partially on that basis. The finding asserts that a number of the allegations are “serious” and include a “potential abuse of law enforcement authority.”
In one case in which an internal complaint was generated regarding misconduct of NPD dispatchers that was later sustained, the department argued that “police misconduct” did not apply to civilian employees, though the Attorney General’s Office disagreed with that assertion.
The Attorney General’s Office analyzed the initial request under the APRA 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. In nearly every instance where a report was ordered to be made public, the Attorney General’s Office noted the public interest in disclosure and considered that Lyssikatos’ original request spanned allegations of misconduct over a three-year period.
“As such, the first…factor, whether the report(s) requested are likely to shed light on overall government functions rather than only reveal information about a particular isolated incident, weighs in favor of disclosure because the requested reports shed light not just on government conduct with regard to particular isolated incidents, but also with regard to how the Department generally handled IA reports and investigations over a multi-year timespan,” the finding reads.
The test requires the public interest in the IA report (which is defined as shedding light on government conduct) to be weighed against the privacy interests implicated by disclosure of the report, taking into account how redactions may ameliorate any privacy concerns. Factors that may be considered when deciding whether a report should be made public or not include the following:
• Whether the report(s) requested are likely to shed light on overall government functions rather than only reveal information about a particular isolated incident.
• Whether the allegations of misconduct were determined to be founded.
• The nature and severity of the alleged misconduct that is the subject of the report, including the rank and position of the official(s) investigated.
• Whether there is any evidence of governmental impropriety in investigating the allegations.
• Any particular public interest in disclosure that is apparent or identified by the requester.
• The extent to which the report reveals personal or private information about officers and/or private citizens or would unfairly harm the reputation of the officers or private citizens.
• Whether redaction of names or other identifying information can effectively ameliorate any privacy concerns.
NPD, however, issued its initial response of denial before this precedent was set in 2019, which was noted by in both the finding from the Attorney General’s Office and NPD Chief Sean Corrigan.
“I felt like it was a fair [finding],” said Corrigan. “[NPD] was not trying to shield officer misconduct from the public, and that is not what this is about at all. This is really a disagreement of the APRA law.”
“In a similar case in 2017, we did our balancing test, said we would not release the reports with our reasoning, and [previous Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s] administration came down on our side,” he continued. “I was following the line in the sand at the time. [Current Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha’s] administration has a different interpretation of the law. I don’t quibble with that. That’s absolutely within their rights to look at it differently and give different guidance.”
NPD disclosed seven of the IA reports under the new law. A review of each of the remaining reports, except two that were agreed irrelevant by both parties, by the Attorney General's Office resulted in the ruling of disclosure of the additional 14 reports.
As per the decision of the ruling, NPD has 10 business days from the date of the finding, April 15, to release the reports.