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RI’s black magic marker of transparency

A picture is worth a thousand words. Especially when most of the words have been assaulted by a magic marker.

Acting on a tip Wednesday, Tim White broke a story about a North Providence firefighter arrested for allegedly stealing painkillers from a terminally ill patient while responding to an emergency call.

To confirm the news, Tim called the North Providence Police Department and spoke to the deputy chief. He also asked for the department’s arrest report on the case. That’s common practice; Rhode Island’s public records law specifically says that “records or reports reflecting the initial arrest of an adult and the charge or charges brought against an adult shall be public.”

The most interesting part of an arrest report is usually the narrative, where the officer describes how the alleged crime was committed and how the suspect was caught. It often provides the most vivid details you read in the news article on a crime.

The deputy chief told Tim he’d send the report along, but first he wanted to redact the victim’s name. Here’s what the narrative looked like when it showed up on our fax machine 10 minutes later:

Dig that transparency!

Tim called the police department back and said, basically, “Is this a joke?” The deputy chief admitted that perhaps the redaction had been a bit extreme, and agreed to take another look. About a half-hour later, Tim got this new version of the narrative:

The second version showed the original one redacted just about everything: the initial reason for the emergency call, a whole section about a witness claiming he saw the firefighter pocket the pills, another about the firefighter being questioned about it, a third one about him allegedly dropping the pills on the couch – basically, the entire story of what happened. Why was all that hidden from the public?

On top of that, the deputy chief had already given Tim many of these details verbally during their original phone interview. So it’s not like he thought all that information should be a secret.

Also interesting – notice that the original, heavily redacted version of the narrative ends with the long second paragraph, but the second version continues onto a second page. So the original version didn’t even include the full arrest report – redacted or not – yet there was no way for us to be aware of the fact that even more information was being withheld than the redacting showed.

And even the less-redacted version of the arrest report raises questions. The deputy chief had said he was only going to remove the name of the victim, but clearly the second version excises far more than that, including full sentences.

As always, the problem here is a knee-jerk default to secrecy – “the right to no” instead of the right to know.

“I applaud the North Providence Police Department for being more transparent the second time around, but my concern is that they may have done it because I’m a member of the news media,” Tim said. “Would a regular member of the general public – who has a right to an arrest report that’s not completely blacked out – get the same treatment?”

This post first appeared on WPRI.com

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