ACLU Sues Rhode Island Police Department For Access to Policies on Use of Pepper Spray

December 4, 2000 12:00 am

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Rhode Island ACLU
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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed an open records lawsuit against the Providence Police Department for refusing to publicly release complete copies of its policies and procedures governing the department’s use of pepper spray.

“If the ACLU can’t get these public records, I don’t know how the ordinary individual would ever get them,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn A. Mannis. “The withholding of these records is particularly egregious here, where a person may have died because of the use of pepper spray, and where a review of the records might help prevent future deaths.”

The ACLU filed a request for copies of those policies in August, shortly after a burglary suspect died in police custody after being pepper-sprayed.

A month and a half after the ACLU filed its request, the department responded by releasing fifteen pages of heavily-edited documents. Among the sections deleted from the documents are paragraphs under the heading “physiological effects” and information on “test spraying” and “spraying distances.”

The lawsuit, filed in Rhode Island Superior Court, argues that the city’s failure to release full copies of the documents and its lack of explanation for the deletions violate the open records law.

The suit seeks a court order requiring “full, un-edited access to the records,” an award of attorneys fees and imposition of a civil fine against the police department.

The safety of pepper spray use on people with respiratory illnesses and its effectiveness on people who are high on drugs has been a subject of national controversy.

Five years ago, the ACLU of Southern California prepared a comprehensive report that documented the many deaths which had occurred in that state after criminal suspects were pepper-sprayed by police.

Today’s lawsuit is just the latest in a series of ACLU challenges to Providence Police Department’s secrecy. In August, the ACLU filed another open records suit against the Department for refusing to release its policies governing the use of surveillance cameras in police cars and in public locations in the city. That suit is pending.

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