Lawyer: DC's refusal to release complaints against officer who wore offensive t-shirt legally flawed

- The District has denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from FOX 5 for any and all past complaints made against an officer spotted wearing an offensive t-shirt in July.

The D.C. government's response highlights the District as one of the most secretive jurisdictions in our area when it comes to police internal investigation records, according to communications lawyer Dana Green of Levine Sullivan Koch and Schulz.

RELATED: DC police officer under fire for reportedly wearing shirt with racist symbol

In July, a petition of an activist group identified Officer Vincent Altiere as the officer seen in a photo in court wearing a shirt referencing the Seventh District, which patrols high-crime areas. The t-shirt featured a Grim Reaper with an AK-47 along with a symbol some have said has been associated with the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.

The Metropolitan Police Department commenced an internal investigation after saying the officer's actions do not represent department as a whole. That investigation is ongoing.

FOX 5 originally asked if the officer had ever been disciplined before based on past citizen complaints alleging racial insensitivity. D.C. police refused to answer.

After submitting a FOIA request, D.C. police rejected FOX 5's request for records of past complaints made against Officer Altiere. FOX 5 appealed to the mayor's office, which also rejected the request, leaving a lawsuit our only option to pursue the information.

RELATED: Attorney: DC police officer's controversial shirt may jeopardize criminal cases

D.C. police and the District government contend the information, which they have refused to acknowledge even if it exists, would represent "a clearly unwanted invasion of personal privacy" for the officer.

"I have not previously seen a Glomar response, which is when the agency says they can't confirm or deny that the records exist,” said Green. “I have not seen that before and that is a really remarkable level of secrecy about this kind of materials.”

Green said that argument as it applies to these kinds of records of an officer's public job actions is legally flawed.

"The troubling thing that we have seen and that you have experienced is when the police officer's personal privacy is being used to withhold records that are about their public duties," said Green.

Green said the exemption to FOIA the District is citing is meant to protect information of a truly personal nature.

"Generally what that is supposed to cover is really personal things like your home address, your social security number, marital status," Green said.

The information Green mentions is not what FOX 5 is seeking, but information the general public may not have the funds or time to pursue. FOX 5 is seeking the advice of its attorneys to deliver this story.

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