D.C. Cops Conspired to Keep Records From Reporters, Activists, and Critics, Says Lawsuit

D.C. cops were able to conspire against critics by keeping damning information secret from them. Amy Phillips, a criminal defense attorney alleges that D.C. cops conspired to keep damning information from people and groups critical of them in a federal lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

According to a whistleblower, the suit was based on her account of daily life at D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act Office (FOIA). She claimed that she was given instructions to flag records requests from individuals and groups. Also, requests about sensitive topics were sent to higher-ups. The two would discuss ways in which to deter, delay or deny such requests.

Charlie Gerstein, one the Phillips lawyers said that the District was trying to suppress criticisms of police officers. “And this is part and parcel of disturbing national trends: governments trying silence advocates who wish to change criminal law system.”

Phillips complained that the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia maintains a watch list of individuals whose FOIA-related requests have been rebuffed by officials at the highest levels. Requesters who are placed on the watch list face obstacles that the general population does not see: They might be subject to charges or delays in receiving public information, their requests may be denied, or even have their request rejected.

Phillips claims she was placed on the “watch list” because of her outspoken criticisms of MPD. In 2019, Phillips made a fuss after MPD refused to fulfill her FOIA request. She wanted transcripts of public hearings concerning former Officer Sean Lojocano, who was charged with grabbing another’s genitals in a stop-and-frisk. Lojocano was ultimately fired. MPD stated that the release of records would not be allowed because it was an unwarranted invasion on personal privacy.

Phillips complains that Phillips made the claim. MPD’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.”

The Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel agreed to release the records, with some redactions. Phillips then sued D.C. courts when the records were not made available two months later. Phillips decided to withdraw the case after MPD began turning over documents the night prior to the first hearing.

Phillips was introduced to Vendette T. Park, a veteran MPD officer who served from 2017 through her retirement at 2019 as department’s FOIA Officer. Phillips filed a new lawsuit to have Parker sign a declaration explaining how MPD’s FOIA process was “for some situations.”

The declaration states that Peter Newsham, the then Chief of Police, and LeeAnn Turner, the MPD Chief Operating Officer, required Parker to report to them all FOIA requests from the American Civil Liberties Union, reporters, media outlets or individuals critical of the department. Newsham felt that he was being blindsided by the press and other media asking him questions about FOIA records. He was not aware of any records having been released.

Turner said that Turner had first made it crystal clear that she would bring any requests from anyone to her attention. [who]Parker alleges she published a negative article on Chief Newsham (or MPD) in the media. Parker also claims people were outspoken at City Council and community meetings against Chief Newsham, or repeatedly requesting records that could harm Chief Newsham. She was eventually instructed to flag records requests from specific individuals and groups—including WUSA9 reporter Eric Flack, FOX-5 DC reporter Marina Marraco, the ACLU, two D.C. advisory neighborhood committee commissioners, Emily Barth and Amy Phillips of the Public Defender’s Office, and Benjamin Douglass of the Anti-Defamation League—and to do background searches on people requesting certain records “to better predict the motivation of the requester.”

Parker claims that Parker was asked by MPD to flag FOIA requests related to specific topics such as personnel records and use of force records. Parker also alleges she was requested to flag FOIA request relating specifically topical records.

The higher-ups in the department would discuss with Parker ways to protect the department from records requests that were received by FOIA watchers or that concern topics that may reflect poorly on MPD. The department would charge high fees to request documents and then come up for denials. This was in order for the requester to give up, or for the department time for defense.

Parker said that although I was FOIA officer at MPD, this does not necessarily mean that I made the final decision to release any records. “In many instances, the authorization to release documents was given by Chief Newsham and Ms. Turner in many circumstances.”

“Parker estimates that … MPD delayed, denied, or improperly altered approximately 20 requests pursuant to the watchlist policy,” states Phillips’ complaint. These records requests allegedly covered stop-and-frisk interactions, an altercation with a D.C. mayor’s employee, and marijuana arrests.

Phillips notes that Phillips complained about this:

Turner was able to see that there were disproportionate numbers of arrests in areas populated by predominantly Black residents. She instructed Parker and her staff not to release the data. Meanwhile, MPD officials collected additional information regarding 9-1-1 and other service calls so they could claim that there had been disproportionately many arrests and that this wasn’t discrimination. Even though they had the records at the start of the month, it took MPD at least one month to collect the additional information.

According to the complaint, responding to FOIA requesters on the basis of subjective criteria rather than “on the base of the content or viewpoint of their past or anticipated speech” violates the First Amendment.

My request for comments was not answered by the MPD.