Two incidents in the past year – a situation in which a Warwick police officer shot a dog that attacked him, and an accident in which an officer hit and killed a pedestrian who was crossing West Shore Road – have Warwick Police Chief Col. Rick Rathbun leaning toward endorsing legislation that would keep the hometowns of law enforcement officers confidential.
Currently, open records legislation requires that the hometown of municipal and state employees be made public. The street address is not public under the law.
Attorney General Peter Neronha favors the proposed change in the open records law that came before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing Wednesday. The committee did not vote on the legislation, and as of Friday companion legislation had not been introduced in the Senate.
Nonetheless, the measure has stirred debate on the management of sensitive information that has become increasingly accessible in this digital age where so much is shared on social media – including the hateful and vitriolic comments of people who hide behind pseudonyms.
In the two Warwick cases, Rathbun said the officers received online threats of violence to them and their families that had him concerned for their safety.
“There are always going to be people dissatisfied with the police department,” the chief said. “No one is ever happy when dealing with the police.” He added that the higher in rank, the greater the officer is put in the spotlight.
“I want your police department to be transparent,” Rathbun said. He said the department abides by the open records law and provides information when requested. Officers are required to give their name and badge number if requested.
“We don’t hide who we are,” he said.
He pointed out that when an officer is charged with a crime, the name is released.
“When an officer goes rogue, that’s released. The law is the law to release that,” he said. Such situations are the exception.
However, Rathbun is concerned for the safety of the department’s men and women and wants them to “come to work not worried about someone knocking on a door [at home].” He said he wants officers to feel confident that the department will protect the privacy of their homes.
Reached Friday for comment, Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said everyone is concerned for the safety of law enforcement officers. He added, however, “I don’t believe that [keeping the hometown of an officer confidential] will help that in any way…the practical impact is not there.”
He argues making the hometown confidential is a “very small step” from keeping the name confidential. Furthermore, he observed that most personnel records are kept secret.
At the hearing last week, Ryan Holt, lobbyist for the attorney general, spoke in favor of the legislation introduced by Rep. Dennis Canario of Portsmouth. Holt told the committee the attorney general’s office received feedback from law enforcement after finding that Pawtucket violated the open records law when it refused to release the hometowns of its police officers. Like Rathbun, the concern raised was over the safety of officers.
In a statement received Monday, the office of the attorney general said, “We believe that the law as currently written requires, without any balancing of competing interests, the disclosure of the city or town of residence of all public employees, including police officers. That said, we recognize that, given their unique role among public employees, disclosure of this information with respect to identified, specific police officers may pose a risk to the safety of those officers and their families. In light of how we interpret the current statute, an amendment to the law is the only solution if the General Assembly wishes to afford a greater degree of security for law enforcement officers and their families.”