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DC judge orders police to release policy documents in ruling that chastises department

Reprinted from Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A District of Columbia judge has ordered the release of documents related to police policies in a blistering ruling that accused the department of making “transparently false” statements in an effort to keep the records private.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund requested policies and special orders showing how police in the nation’s capital exercise their authority.

The nonprofit advocacy group submitted a public records request in 2008, then sued the following year after the department refused to provide the records. Two department officials, including Assistant Chief Patrick Burke, said in sworn statements that releasing the requested documents would endanger the public and risked supplying criminals and terrorists with information that could hinder investigations.

The officials had said they determined the documents had to be withheld because there was no logical or meaningful way to exempt certain portions.

But Superior Court Judge Judith Macaluso sharply criticized that blanket response as “melodramatic” and “transparently false,” and said she had “great concern with the credibility” of the two officials, according to a transcript of last Friday’s hearing.

The judge also lambasted a lawyer for the city who submitted the statements, threatening to call his boss, Attorney General Irvin Nathan, if the office made a similar mistake again. The lawyer, Chad Copeland, apologized at the hearing and said he recognized he had erred.

The judge said she had reviewed the documents and found many of them were innocuous, revealed no sensitive information and, in some cases, were so old as to be obsolete. In some cases, the same documents that police refused to turn over have been made public in other forums, such as before the D.C. Council, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.

“You can’t just make things up and sign under penalty of perjury, and that’s what they’ve done in this case,” Verheyden-Hilliard, who said the refusal to provide the documents amounted to “really appalling conduct.”

The judge in some cases redacted sensitive portions of the documents but otherwise ruled against the department in ordering the records to be released. At one point, she appeared to mock an assistant chief’s pledge that all his sworn statements in denying the release of certain records were “true and correct.”

“Well, the foregoing is not true and correct,” Macaluso said, according to the transcript. “The foregoing is obviously and completely false.”

Police department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the department would comply with the order, but remained “extremely cautious about procedures pertaining to items such as homicide investigations, investigations related to children, and the handling of internal affairs cases.”

Verheyden-Hilliard said the police department’s response, and suggestion that sensitive information was at risk of being disclosed, suggested that “they may not have learned from the judge’s order.”

“It indicates to me an ongoing recalcitrance,” she said.

Among the documents the judge ordered at least partially released is one describing how the department’s civil disturbance unit deploys for major events and emergencies, one describing how first responders to a homicide should protect a crime scene and coordinate with investigators, and another detailing how police would react in the event of an emergency at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland. The judge called that document “ancient” because it was signed by a police chief in the 1980s and said it contains only common-sense information.

“A publication of a document that expresses common sense precaution is not likely to assist a terrorist,” the judge said.

Verheyden-Hilliard said the judge’s ruling was a significant victory for transparency.

“This is material that the community, that people in (the District of Columbia) have been trying to see for years,” she said. “This litigation has resulted in the largest disclosure of police materials in the history” of the D.C. public records law.