By Karen Bordeleau
PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island attorney general’s office has once again decided to withhold public records from the public – this time ruling that the sister of a man who hanged himself at the state prison doesn’t have the right to see a police narrative relating to the investigation of his death.
The attorney general ruled that the public release of the narrative “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of [the family’s] personal privacy rights.”
Let me repeat that.
The sister of a man who died in state custody was denied permission to view the details of that death because it apparently invades the family’s privacy – even though she, a family member, asked for those details and even though the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled the right to privacy dies with the person.
“The APRA exempts from public disclosure law enforcement records where disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’ but does not identify or specify whose personal privacy need not be unjustifiably invaded. As a result, the APRA does not prohibit [the law] from being applied to individuals other than the person to whom the information relates,” the attorney general’s office said.
When the Department of Corrections was pressed on the matter, it cited HIPPA – that amorphous federal “medical” law that causes public and private entities alike to cower in fear of erroneously releasing some fact, any fact.
Holly A. Radtke filed the request for the police narrative because she wanted to know more about the circumstances surrounding the death of her 36-year-old brother, Todd D. Radtke, an electrician who hanged himself last summer in the Adult Correctional Institutions’ Intake Service Center while awaiting trial on forgery, larceny and possession of heroin charges. He died a week later, on Aug. 5, in Kent Hospital.
The hanging was not publicly disclosed by the ACI or the Department of Public Safety. Michael Field, who heads Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin’s Open Records Unit, and Susan Lamkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, still will not say how Radtke died, only that he died in state custody. The Providence Journal learned of Radtke’s death in a published obituary.
Special Assistant Attorney General Lisa Pinsonneault wrote that, under the state’s Access to Public Records Act, incident reports that do not result in an arrest are not subject to disclosure.
Pinsonneault also said that Holly Radtke had not identified a “public interest sought to be advanced” that would compel disclosure of the police narrative.
Some would disagree.
The fact that a man died in state custody seems to be a compelling reason to hand over the police narrative so that his family – and the public — can assess whether the state acted in the best possible interest of the prisoner. “We’re sorry your brother is dead but we can’t give you all the details of his death” is an outrageous response. Who wouldn’t want to know what the last moments were like for someone you care about?
I wonder what Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin would do if he were denied the police records of a brother or son who died in state custody. My guess is that he wouldn’t shrug his shoulders, say “OK – thanks for your time” and walk away. My guess is that he would get the answer he was looking for.
Karen Bordeleau is executive editor and senior vice president of The Providence Journal