FOIA Lawsuit Featuring A DC Police Whistleblower Says PD Conspired To Screw Requesters It Didn't Like
from the affidaviting-the-quiet-part-loud dept
It’s no secret government agencies love to screw with FOIA requesters. This is especially true when the responding agency doesn’t care for the requester’s attitude or thinks the release of information might lead to future negative reporting or embarrassment.
Most agencies, however, are careful not to set up any policies — formal or informal — that serve to deter certain requesters. And those that do have, so far, been lucky enough to not employ a whistleblower in their FOIA departments.
That’s what happened to the Washington DC Metro Police Department, according to a recently filed lawsuit. Here’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown with the details for Reason:
Did D.C. cops conspire to keep damning information from people and groups critical of them? That’s what criminal defense lawyer Amy Phillips alleges in a new federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The suit stems from a whistleblower’s account of life inside the D.C. police department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. The whistleblower said she was instructed to flag for higher-ups any records requests coming from certain individuals and groups, as well as requests regarding certain sensitive topics. They would then strategize about ways to discourage, delay, or deny these requests.
Those targeted by this informal policy included reporters, activists, and members of local advisory groups. This is from former DC Metro PD FOIA officer Vendette T. Parker’s sworn affidavit, which is attached to the defense lawyer’s lawsuit [PDF]:
Some examples are Eric Flack, WUSA9 reporter; Marina Marraco, Fox5 reporter; the ACLU; Denise Krepp ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] Commissioner; Lorenzo Greene, ANC Commissioner; Benjamin Douglass, Anti-Defamation League (ADL); Emily Barth, Public Defender’s Office; and Amy Phillips, Public Defender’s Office; among others.
This list was compiled by Parker and Metro PD Chief Operating Officer, LeeAnn Turner. As head of the FOIA office, Parker was expected to stonewall requests from requesters on the list as well as shield the department and its Chief of Police from embarrassment.
Although Ms. Turner did not name any specific individual in this meeting, she made it clear that I should bring to her attention any request coming from a person he has previously published a negative media article about Chief Newsham or MPD, if he uses the records for litigation if he is outspoken in City Council or community meetings in a negative way toward Chief Newsham or MPD, if the requester is the subject of a high profile incident, or if he repeatedly requests records that have the potential to be detrimental to Chief Newsham or MPD, regardless is of whether or not what is currently being requested is potentially detrimental.
The list of documents that might trigger this informal policy (no matter who requested them) were requests targeting the PD’s controversial Gun Recovery Unit, personnel records, emails involving the police chief, use of force records, stop and frisk records, and anything involving “recent negative high profile events.”
The list of requests and requesters was forwarded to Turner and the police chief and a weekly meeting was held to discuss how best to thwart requests that satisfied the unwritten criteria established by the PD’s Chief Operating Officer.
Amy Philips first suspected something might be up after attending an Adverse Action Hearing for Officer Sean Lojocano, who was accused of conducting “unnecessarily invasive genital searches” of people he stopped. Despite this meeting being attended by other members of the public (including an ACLU rep and a local journalist), the Metro PD rejected Philips’ request for recordings and transcripts of the hearing. And it did so in record time.
Less than ninety minutes after Phillips submitted her Lojocano request through the District’s online FOIA portal, she received a response denying her request in full. The response came from Latrina Crumlin, who identified herself as a “Staff Assistant, FOIA” for MPD. The response read “A release of such records would constitute as a [sic] clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and is exempt from disclosure pursuant to D.C. Official Code § 2-534(a)(2) and (a)(3)(C).”
This was wrong, and it was strange. Usually, MPD takes weeks or months to provide any substantive response to FOIA requests. And Crumlin’s position appeared to be that the records of a public hearing—one that Phillips and many others attended—were categorically excludable as invasions of someone’s privacy, which does not make any sense.
As Philips’ lawsuit points out, a policy like this — whether official or unofficial — violates her First Amendment right to access this information. She’s seeking an injunction forbidding the PD from engaging in future viewpoint and content based discrimination when handling FOIA requests.
While it’s almost certain other public agencies are engaging in similar practices to thwart pesky requesters or delay public embarrassment for as long as possible, this is the first time a FOIA litigant has secured a sworn affidavit from someone who participated in FOIA keep away at the behest of their supervisors. That’s going to go a long way in litigation like this and with any luck, the Metro PD won’t be able to jerk people around in the future just because it doesn’t like them or their requests.