By Steven Brown
On November 15, immediately after the Cranston City Council narrowly defeated a proposed police union contract, the wards of two Council members who voted against the contract were flooded with parking tickets. As Steven Stycos, one of the Council members, documented, 128 tickets were issued in those two wards in the two nights following the vote, while only nine tickets were issued in the entire rest of the city. The 128 tickets actually exceeded the number of parking tickets that police had issued in the entire city during the months of September and October combined.
This disturbing use of power by police to apparently retaliate against public officials raises serious issues. Just as serious is the question of how much information about the scandal will be shared with the public. That is because Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) contains overly-broad exemptions that may keep critical documents shielded from public view.
For instance, what did the Mayor know about the ticketing, and when did he know it? Unfortunately, APRA excludes from disclosure any “correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities.” Another broad exemption for law enforcement records could similarly be used to hide many of the records that shed light on this controversy. To top it off, a separate statute known as the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) includes broad confidentiality protections for any police officer who is the subject of disciplinary proceedings.
In response a statement from the captain (who is also the police union president) alleged to be behind the ticketing blitz that he was waiving his rights to confidentiality, the ACLU of Rhode Island has filed an open records request with the police department to seek answers to one piece of the puzzle. Did the captain, as some anonymous sources stated, deliberately use a personal cell phone, as opposed to the police department radio system, to orchestrate the ticketing? The ACLU has asked for, among other documents, the police logs and recordings of the captain for those two nights to find out.
The police department’s response to this APRA request will tell a lot about how open the City is going to be in letting the public in on the details of this emerging scandal. It may also likely tell us that open government advocates have a lot more work to do in strengthening APRA in order to protect the public’s right to know.
Steven Brown is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island ACLU.