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Opinion | Lawsuit alleges D.C. police leaders flagged FOIA requests from journalists and activists – The Washington Post

In March 2019, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department held a public hearing for officer Sean Lojocano, who was accused of performing unneeded and unnecessarily invasive genital searches of city residents. Among the attendees was Amy Phillips, an MPD critic and public defender in the District. Three days later, Phillips filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a transcript of the hearing. Within less than 90 minutes, the department denied her request, arguing that releasing the transcript would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
That seemed odd to Phillips. The hearing was public, so the transcript should have been public, too. She appealed the denial to the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, which directed the department to produce the transcript, but allowed some redactions. Almost three years after the public hearing, the department still hasn’t provided an unredacted transcript.
In the police department’s actions, Phillips had noticed a pattern: The police had stonewalled or denied her other FOIA requests, too — and the denials were usually quick. In 2020, she learned why, courtesy of a whistleblower: Vendette Parker, the department’s head FOIA officer from October 2017 until her retirement in January 2020.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in D.C. federal district court, Phillips — citing a sworn declaration from Parker — alleges that then-D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham instructed the department’s FOIA compliance officers to inform him of all incoming requests, and to flag any requests that could embarrass Newsham or the department. The chief and other senior officials would then meet with the FOIA officers to discuss strategies on how to delay, deny or otherwise frustrate those requests. (Disclosure: Phillips is a friend. She also says her lawsuit is not related to her job with the D.C. Public Defender Service.)
According to her declaration, Parker says that on her first day as a FOIA officer, she was told to flag any requests from reporters who had written or aired negative stories about the police department, any people or groups engaged in litigation against the department, any requests for the personal emails of Newsham or D.C. Police Chief Operating Officer Leeann Turner, and any other requests that could reflect poorly on the department or its leadership.
Parker’s declaration provides examples of people and groups whose requests received added scrutiny, including Phillips, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Anti-Defamation League, and reporters with the city’s CBS and Fox affiliates. Parker alleges she was also told to flag any requests for information related to stop-and-frisk policies, disciplinary hearings and the city’s controversial Gun Recovery Unit.
According to Parker, Turner told her not only to flag such requests, but to also write up possible responses that would justify the department denying or obstructing those requests. In other instances, she was asked to just delay potentially damaging requests until D.C. police officials could formulate a response. She claims she was also told to bring her proposed responses in hard copy form so there would be no record of them.
“While we haven’t been formally served with the suit, MPD will not discuss specific allegations due to the pending litigation,” said Officer Hugh Carew, a police spokesman. “We do acknowledge the serious nature of the claims. Transparency with our community partners is necessary to maintaining trust and agency accountability. A thorough review of the assertions will be completed and appropriately acted upon.”
One example Parkerprovides is an ACLU request for information about the demographics of residents subjected to stop-and-frisk tactics. Parker says that Turner specifically asked how the request could be denied or frustrated. One strategy they discussed, the lawsuit says, was to charge the organization “a very large amount of money” for the request. They ultimately decided to release only a sampling of statistics from each police district in the city, but with each sample first reviewed and approved by Turner — not to ensure it was statistically representative of the district as a whole, but to ensure its release wouldn’t reflect poorly on the department.
When WUSA9 reporter Eric Flack made a similar request, Parker alleges that Turner told her not to release the documents at all unless the reporter followed up. According to Parker, the reporter never followed up, so the information was never released.
Parker alleges that in other cases, she and Turner declined to release embarrassing documents on even flimsier pretexts, such as that they had been crookedly copied and were therefore aesthetically unacceptable.
After a 2018 incident in which an employee of the D.C. mayor’s office was arrested following a drunken altercation, Fox5 reporter Marina Marraco requested a copy of the arrest report. The reporter pointed out on Twitter that while her copy of the report was redacted, a non-reporter had made a similar request and received an unredacted copy.
Transparency in DC looks like this.
Media requests a report re: 8 @MayorBowser staffers involved in drunken brawl @ Wilson Bldg. Media gets redacted version. Anyone else: unredacted (only last names). Some how Liason Russell Rowe is shackled, arrested & then let go … no charges pic.twitter.com/Ml1srjDZ9A
According to the lawsuit, that’s because Marraco was a reporter who had been flagged to receive extra scrutiny.
After retiring, Parker approached Phillips to let her know about the scheme. Phillips immediately filed more FOIA requests for emails between Parker, Turner and Newsham that mentioned Phillips or the other names Parker said had been flagged, hoping to find evidence of the scheme. But the department returned only email exchanges between Phillips herself and those officials. D.C. police told Phillips it would be withholding any other documents, which fell under exemptions for “attorney-client and work-product privileges,” the “internal deliberative processes of the government” and “unwarranted intrusion on personal privacy.” Phillips has never received the emails.
When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser nominated Newsham for police chief in 2017, she praised his “commitment to transparency.” He left in 2021 and is now the chief of police for Prince William County. Turner is still with the department. And the lawsuit says that “according to Parker’s former colleagues,” the FOIA policy has continued under current D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III.
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