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Statement from the Office of Attorney General on recent public records act finding

In exercising its duty to review complaints under the Access to Public Records Act ("APRA"), the Office of Attorney General must apply the law as written and as interpreted by the 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. 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.

This Office's recent finding in Lyssikatos v. Narragansett Police Department, PR 20-58, makes clear that, under the APRA, internal affairs reports are public unless disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Because the Narragansett Police Department withheld all internal affair reports, this Office's finding directs the Police Department to reconsider its decision, applying the legal framework set forth by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the Rhode Island Superior Court, and this Office.

As the finding makes clear, this Office found that the Police Department did not adequately consider the public interest in the disclosure of the reports and did not appropriately consider whether any privacy interests may be satisfied by disclosing reports with appropriate redactions, which the Complainant had later indicated he would accept. The Department has until September 15 to re-analyze the reports and provide a supplemental submission to this Office, after which, the Complainant may also submit a response. As such, this matter remains open and pending with this Office. The Office has not yet issued a finding regarding whether any of the requested reports may be withheld under the APRA.

This Office's finding in this case was based on the plain language of the APRA and directly tracks a recent Rhode Island Superior Court decision issued by Judge Melissa A. Long in Lyssikatos v. City of Pawtucket, PC 2017-3678 (March 18, 2019). In that case, the Court also rejected Complainant's argument that internal affairs reports are per se public and there is no need to apply the balancing test. Further, on May 22, 2020, the Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected Complainant's petition to immediately review and reverse the Superior Court's decision.

This Office has previously ordered the release of internal affairs reports in prior findings issued in 2019 and 2020. See, Farinelli v. City of Pawtucket, PR 20-48, and Farinelli v. City of Providence, PR 19-04.