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Rhode Island AG: Woonsocket police should have given WPRI 12 report

By Tim White, reporter, WPRI 12 in Providence, R.I., and director, New England First Amendment Coalition

The Rhode Island Attorney General’s office has ruled the Woonsocket Police Department violated the state’s public records laws by refusing to give WPRI 12 the narrative portion of an arrest report, charging a fellow officer with drunk driving.

Patrolman Steven Fairley was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol on Feb. 25, but the department declined to give the arrest report to a Target 12 producer the following day.

WPRI 12 appealed its decision, which prompted the department to release what is commonly known as the “face” sheet of the report – giving only the name of the person arrested and the charge – but refused to give the “narrative” portion of the report, which details what lead up to an arrest.

In March, WPRI filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office arguing the department violated the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) for not initially releasing the report, withholding the narrative section as well as failing to give a reason for denying the report.

In a June 14 advisory opinion, Special Assistant Attorney General Maria Corvese ruled the Woonsocket Police Department “violated the APRA when it failed to provide you the initial narrative report” and failing to give a reason when it denied the Target 12 producer a copy of the arrest report as well as failing to give a reason why the department was denying the narrative.

Citing the public records law Corvese wrote, “this department has interpreted ‘records and reports reflecting the initial arrest of an adult and the charge or charges brought against an adult’ to mean the disclosure of the initial face sheet and the initial narrative report.”

“Thus, the initial narrative report is a public record subject to disclosure,” Corvese wrote.

The attorney general’s office ruled the department did not violate the law when it failed to provide a reason for denying the narrative report because the city relied on the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights in their response to WPRI 12′s complaint.

“We’re not trying to cover up anything,” Police Chief Thomas Carey said in a phone interview following the ruling. “We are concerned about both the criminal investigation and the administrative investigation.”

Carey had argued to the attorney general’s office that the probe was still ongoing from an administrative end, under the Officers Bill of Rights, so the department wasn’t obligated to release the report.

In response, WPRI 12 argued the Bill of Rights statute does not preclude the release of records under the state public records law.

The attorney general’s office agreed stating, “We find nothing in the Bill of Rights prohibits the police department from releasing the requested records.”

The attorney general’s office declined to fine the department because it ruled the withholding of the records was not a “knowing and willful violation.”

In response the Woonsocket police released the full report including officer statements and narratives detailing the events that lead to Fairley’s arrest.

DUI arrest details

According to the report, Fairley, 31, of Woonsocket, had attended a retirement party for a fellow officer earlier in the evening on Feb. 25 then went into Providence to go to some nightclubs. Fairley was joined by fellow patrolman Nicholas Guilmette that evening, according to the report. Both men were off-duty at the time.

The report said the pair were on the way back from Providence when the incident took place.

Just before 2 a.m. a woman in another car claimed she was rear-ended by a dark-colored SUV matching Fairley’s car, then left the scene. She was able to give a license plate to officers on the scene, which came back to Officer Fairley’s dark blue Range Rover.

According to the report, another officer heard the call for Fairley’s plate over the police radio and called Fairley on his cell phone. Fairley – with Guilmette in the passenger seat – pulled over into a parking lot and officers arrived several minutes later.

Initially Failrey denied driving his car and denied getting into an accident. But a statement from an investigating officer on the scene said, “I walked over to Patrolman Fairley’s SUV and I could see fresh scrapes along the passenger’s side front wheel well and what appeared to be light colored paint transfer on his front bumper, similar in color to the victim’s vehicle.”

At that point Guilmette became belligerent, according to the report “yelling” at his fellow officers that Fairley was being treated unfairly.

“I knew it was that Taurus, he didn’t hit that car, he almost hit it and when he did, I yelled, ‘Steve watch out, you almost hit that car’ but then he missed the car and hit a curb,” Guilmette said according to the report.

A police sergeant on scene ordered Guilmette to leave the scene, but he refused according to the report, instead sitting on the hood of a police cruiser.

“I ordered Patrolman Guilmette to leave the area or I was going to place him under arrest for obstructing a police officer and refusing to move,” Sergeant Michael Villiard wrote in the report.

He said another officer dragged Guilmette from the scene. When interviewed days after the incident Guilmette admitted to investigators that he was “highly intoxicated.”

When asked if Officer Fairley had been drinking he said, “Yes, but I cannot say what he drank or how much he drank.”

The report quotes several officers as saying Fairley appeared intoxicated with “slurred speech,” “watery bloodshot eyes” and swayed while standing.

While under supervision at the police department, an officer wrote that Fairley dozed off twice in a 15-minute period.

Fairley refused to submit to a Breathalyzer test but failed a field sobriety test on the scene. Initially officers did not charge him with drunk driving because they did not see him behind the wheel of his SUV. But after consulting with the attorney general’s office, the department decided there was enough evidence from witness statements to put Fairley behind the wheel of the car – including the comments made by Guilmette – and charged him with the offense.

Police Chief Thomas Carey tells Target 12 a judge dropped the DUI charge ruling that since officers didn’t offer him the opportunity to receive a blood test, the case could not go forward.

“Is it frustrating? Sure it is,” Carey said. “We’re not above the law; if someone violated the law we try to make the best case and Officer Fairley is no different.”

Carey said Fairley still faces a misdemeanor charge of refusing to submit to a breath test and both he and Guilmette are part of an internal investigation.

“If we find he violated any rules of the police department we will take administrative action,” Carey said.

This report first appeared here.


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