City fights disclosure of officers’ hometowns

City fights disclosure of officers’ hometowns

Officers worry about their privacy, safety of families

PAWTUCKET – Facing a possible lawsuit from city police officers if they release the names of officers’ hometowns to a member of the public, City Solicitor Frank Milos is saying the best course of action is likely to defend against potential legal action from the Office of the Attorney General instead.

“If the city releases the cities or towns of residence, we cannot undo that action, and the city faces a suit for damages,” said Milos in a memo this week to members of Mayor Donald Grebien’s administration. “Therefore, I believe that the best course of action would be to defend a suit filed by the AG’s office. If the courts ultimately decide to compel the city to release the cities or towns of residence, the city would have the protection of a court order and would not have to defend against a lawsuit filed by the (Fraternal Order of Police).”

In addition, the FOP could move to intervene in a suit filed by the AG’s office and, if successful, could advance its arguments as to why officers’ cities and towns of residence should not be released.

Officials are questioning an Oct. 28 finding of Attorney Gen. Peter Neronha backing the complaint of Pawtucket resident Lynn Farinelli, specifically why it goes against a similar case in 2004 where it was ruled that officers’ hometowns did not have to be released.

Patrolman Jim Baino, president of the Pawtucket Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, and the school resource officer at Tolman High School, said the Access to Public Records Act was never that the addresses of police or those in law enforcement be made public.

“Our main concern is the families and the people who haven’t really signed up for this job,” said Baino.

Police always have a sense of their surroundings, he said, but when it comes to their families, they have a certain expectation that they’re separate from that and they don’t have to worry about them.

“It just takes one person who feels you’ve wronged them and they will do anything they have to,” he said.

Certainly anyone can find out where someone lives if they try hard enough, but plenty of officers go out of their way to put their homes in other people’s names or take other steps to remain more private, he said. None want that elevated level of anxiety from wondering if someone is going to post their home address on Facebook or Instagram if they feel like they’ve been wronged. They go home to relax, he said.

Farinelli, the co-founder of the Rhode Island Accountability Project who has filed a number of complaints against the city over records and other matters, including over the previous investigation into her son’s death by suicide, says law enforcement officers should be held to the same standard as other city employees.

“Secrecy breeds corruption. Continually granting law enforcement special privacy protections only feeds the disconnect between the people and their public servants,” she said in a statement to The Breeze. “How can people have faith in the integrity of the system when the system is clouded in secrecy? Law enforcement officers must be held to the same standards as the people they serve or we risk further misfeasance.”

Unfortunately, she said, Milos and police union attorney Joseph Penza Jr. “don’t believe the law applies to all public servants.” There are many valid reasons why the community would want to know what cities or towns officers live in, said Farinelli.

“I feel it is outrageous Mr. Milos and Mr. Penza would attempt to challenge the Attorney General’s office in their decision,” she said. “It is a longstanding decision that city of residence is clearly required to be disclosed for all public servants under the APRA laws.”

Baino said the public can find enough information with the names of officers, including how many there are, he said.

“It’s hard enough now trying to get police officers,” he said, and this will make it that much more difficult attract new ones.

The union is ready to take this fight as far as its members are able, said Baino.

In an Oct. 28 directive to Milos stating that the city had violated the APRA by withholding the list requested by Farinelli more than a year ago, Special Assistant Attorney Gen. Sean Lyness gave the city 10 days to release the list of hometowns requested by Farinelli, stating that the APRA specifically provides that the city or town of residence for a public employee shall be public.

Milos noted in his memo to the Grebien administration that his office had already denied one resident’s request for the same information when Farinelli made her request, noting that the person making the request for information has no bearing on decisions to disclose records.

Penza argues that providing the hometowns of officers violated their privacy rights “and more importantly would endanger their physical safety.” If the city discloses either the city or town of a police officer, it has the same effect as disclosing an officer’s home address, he maintains, since the specific address can subsequently be determined through tax records or other public documents.

An Oct. 28 finding of a violation against the city states that a 2004 ruling that hometowns should not be disclosed is not binding here, as it was made under a prior version of the APRA.

According to the Oct. 28 ruling, it was found that Pawtucket made its determination to deny the records based on a legitimate concern for officer safety and its “mistaken but good faith interpretation of the law, as well as this office’s prior finding in (Chappell v. Rhode Island State Police – 2004).”

According to Milos, the city relied on the Chappell finding in denying Farinelli’s request. He cited the previous opinion of the attorney general’s office that it was appropriate to redact the city and town of residence of a police officer due to a “heightened privacy interest,” staying that the underlying APRA provision has not changed since 2004.

After the AG’s ruling, members of the Pawtucket Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 expressed concern with the finding and the disclosure of hometowns.

Penza stated that if the city releases the cities and towns of residence, then “the FOP on behalf of its officers will be compelled to file a civil lawsuit against the city and any official disclosing this information based on, but not limited to, violating the officers’ privacy. We will also seek attorney’s fees.” Police agencies on a broader level have also warned against releasing the communities of residence for officers, according to Milos.

The city may well have to pick a plaintiff, says Milos. On one hand, the city can decide to release the cities or towns of residence for Pawtucket officers and be forced to defend a case from the FOP in Superior Court, or officials can decide not to release the information and face legal action by the AG’s office seeking to compel the city to release the information.