Lawsuit alleges DC police department keeps ‘watchlist’ of critics

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(WASHINGTON) — A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the District of Columbia alleges its police department keeps a “watchlist” of critics and stalls or denies requests for public information from those on it.

Amy Phillips, a criminal defense lawyer and “outspoken critic” of the Metropolitan Police Department, filed the lawsuit after, she said, a former employee alerted her to the alleged existence of the watchlist and her presence on it. Phillips said in the lawsuit that she is on the alleged list because she requested information that embarrassed MPD and that she intends to continue.

The lawsuit claims the alleged list is a “constitutional violation” and discriminates against requestors of public information on the basis of the “content and viewpoint of prior or anticipated speech,” according to the court filing.

Phillips is requesting the court require the District to stop the use of any watchlist policy and establish a way to ensure continued compliance. She is also asking for attorney’s fees and damages of $1.

“This lawsuit is important because MPD is trying to silence critics of police at a crucial moment in American history where people like me are trying to hold them to account,” Charlie Gerstein, Phillips’ lawyer, said in an interview with ABC News.

If someone on the alleged list submits a request to MPD under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act, it is “set aside for special review by high-ranking officials, including the Chief of Police,” the lawsuit alleges.

People are allegedly put on this list after publicly criticizing the MPD or when requesting information that could be embarrassing to the MPD or its officers, according to the lawsuit.

“Once on the 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 lawsuit alleges.

In the lawsuit, Phillips said her allegedly being on the list amounts to a violation of her First Amendment rights.

Inspector Vendette Parker, a former FOIA officer for MPD, reportedly alerted Phillips to the existence of the “unofficial, unwritten policy,” the lawsuit states. Parker was reportedly told on her first day of work that the watchlist was created in an effort to prevent then-Police Chief Peter Newsham from being “blindsided” by reporters with questions regarding records they received, the lawsuit says.

According to an estimate from Parker cited in the lawsuit, the “MPD delayed, denied or improperly altered approximately 20 requests pursuant to the watchlist policy” between 2017 and the end of 2019.

“[Parker] also said that she would flag for attention any request that came from a reporter. So that, we think, has to be a lot more, but at the moment we’re not sure,” Gerstein said. “We look forward to learning more in the process of litigating this case.”

Every week, Parker was required to notify Newsham and LeeAnn Turner, the chief operating officer of MPD, of requests that “may lead to criticism of the department, specifically those originating from news reporters or people known to be critical of the department, or those containing requests for information with the potential to embarrass the department,” according to the lawsuit.

Parker would then have a weekly meeting with Turner in which she was instructed how to process the requests, the lawsuit alleges.

“Proposed responsive documents were to be presented to Turner in hard-copy form because, Turner said, she did not want to generate more records that would be subject to disclosure,” the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, those on the alleged list — including reporters, advisory neighborhood commissioners and criminal defense lawyers — always at least experienced a delay in their requests “while the department prepares for any criticism that may result.”

According to former colleagues of Parker, the lawsuit alleges, current Chief of Police Robert Contee has not ended or suspended the policy.

Phillips said she filed at least eight requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act between 2018 and 2021, including requests for information about the MPD’s disciplinary reviews of officers, Newsham’s use of “zero-tolerance policing,” and “policies governing MPD’s specialized units, including the Gun Recovery Unit, Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, and Crime Suppression Teams.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters she hadn’t read the lawsuit and couldn’t directly comment on it, but said she is taking the accusation seriously, noting “all FOIA requests should be handled as expeditiously as possible.”

“I’m never going to try to stop anybody’s First Amendment right,” she added.

Hugh Carew, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department, told ABC News it hadn’t been formally served with the lawsuit but wouldn’t discuss specific allegations due to the pending litigation.

“We do acknowledge the serious nature of the claims. Transparency with our community partners is necessary to maintaining trust and agency accountability,” Carew said. “A thorough review of the assertions will be completed and appropriately acted upon.”

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