Did D.C. cops conspire to keep damning information from people and groups critical of them? That’s what criminal defense lawyer Amy Phillips alleges in a new federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The suit stems from a whistleblower’s account of life inside the D.C. police department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. The whistleblower said she was instructed to flag for higher-ups any records requests coming from certain individuals and groups, as well as requests regarding certain sensitive topics. They would then strategize about ways to discourage, delay, or deny these requests.
“The District is attempting to silence speech criticizing the police,” said Charlie Gerstein, one of the lawyers representing Phillips. “And that is part of a disturbing national trend: governments trying to silence advocates who want to change the criminal legal system.”
According to Phillips’ complaint, “the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPD) maintains a list of people whose requests for information under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are set aside for special review by high-ranking officials.” Once on the watch list, “the requesters face hurdles that the general public avoids: They may be charged money for public information that others get for free, they may have their requests delayed, or they may have their requests denied outright.”
The suit claims Phillips was put on the watch list because “she is an outspoken critic of MPD.” For instance, in 2019, she raised a fuss when MPD failed to fill her FOIA request for transcripts from public disciplinary hearings involving former Officer Sean Lojocano (who was accused of grabbing someone’s genitals during a stop and frisk and was eventually fired). MPD said releasing the records would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
“This was wrong, and it was strange,” states Phillips’ complaint. MPD’s “position appeared to be that the records of a public hearing—one that Phillips and many others attended—were categorically excludable as invasions of someone’s privacy, which does not make any sense.”
She appealed to the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, which said the records (with some redactions) should be released. When they still weren’t produced two months later, Phillips sued in D.C. court. The night before the case’s first hearing, however, MPD started turning over documents, and Phillips went on to drop the case.
It was through this experience that Phillips met Vendette T. Parker, a 21-year veteran of MPD who served as the department’s FOIA officer from 2017 until her retirement at the end of 2019. As part of Phillips’ new lawsuit, she submitted a declaration from Parker that explained how MPD’s normal FOIA process was subverted “for certain situations.”
According to the declaration, then-Chief of Police Peter Newsham and MPD Chief Operating Officer LeeAnn Turner required Parker to flag for them any FOIA requests that came from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), from reporters or media outlets, or from particular individuals who had been critical of the department. Newsham “felt he was being blindsided as the media and others confronted him with questions regarding records they had obtained from FOIA; records he was unaware had been released,” Parker’s declaration states.
Turner first “made it clear that I should bring to her attention any request coming from a person [who] has previously published a negative media article about Chief Newsham or MPD,” along with requests from people prone to using MPD records for litigation, being “outspoken in City Council or community meetings in a negative way toward Chief Newsham or MPD,” or frequently requesting “records that have the potential to be detrimental to Chief Newsham or MPD,” alleges Parker. She was eventually instructed to flag records requests from specific individuals and groups—including WUSA9 reporter Eric Flack, FOX-5 DC reporter Marina Marraco, the ACLU, two D.C. advisory neighborhood committee commissioners, Emily Barth and Amy Phillips of the Public Defender’s Office, and Benjamin Douglass of the Anti-Defamation League—and to do background searches on people requesting certain records “to better predict the motivation of the requester.”
Parker alleges that she was also asked to flag FOIA requests involving particular topics, including MPD’s Gun Recovery Unit, personnel records, use of force records, stop and frisk records, and disciplinary records.
In instances where records requests came from those on the FOIA watch list or concerned topics that could reflect badly on MPD, the department higher-ups would allegedly strategize with Parker about how to proceed in a way that might shield the department. This included selectively charging high fees for requested documents, coming up with various pretenses for denying some requests, and delaying responses in the hopes that requesters would give up or so the department had time to come up with a defense.
“Although I was the FOIA officer for MPD, it is not accurate that I approved nor made the final determination to release all records,” said Parker. “In many situations, the approval to release documents, which ones, and when to release them was made by Ms. Turner and Chief Newsham.”
“Parker estimates that … MPD delayed, denied, or improperly altered approximately 20 requests pursuant to the watchlist policy,” states Phillips’ complaint. These allegedly included records requests related to stop-and-frisk encounters, an altercation involving an employee with the D.C. mayor’s office, and marijuana arrests, among other things.
For instance: “Many community groups (including the ACLU) requested MPD data on arrests for marijuana possession,” notes Phillips’ complaint:
After Turner received the responsive data and discovered that it showed that disproportionate number of the arrests occurred in neighborhoods with predominantly Black residents, she directed Parker and her staff to withhold the data while MPD officials gathered additional data regarding 9-1-1 calls and other calls for service so that they could argue that the disproportionate arrests were due to disproportionate requests rather than discrimination. It took at least a month to gather that additional data, and only after the data was ready did MPD respond to the FOIA request, despite having records in producible form at the beginning of that month.
Responding to FOIA requesters based not on objective criteria but “on the basis of the content and viewpoint of their prior or anticipated speech” is a violation of the First Amendment, the complaint states.
The MPD did not respond to my request for comment.