Freedom of the press

‘There Is No Watchlist': DC Police Chief Shoots Down Public Info Claim

"MPD’s blacklist practice is part of a broader pattern of resistance to transparency and public accountability," an ACLU lawyer said

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department of keeping a watchlist of reporters, lawyers and community activists who are critical of the department and at times delaying their requests for public information.

The lawsuit by a local defense attorney alleges that MPD began the list under orders from former Chief Peter Newsham, and the practice continues under Chief Robert Contee’s command.

According to the lawsuit, requests for information filed under the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA, by anyone on the list were flagged and either delayed or denied.

“There is no watchlist,” Contee said in an exclusive interview Thursday. 

The chief said he would look into the department’s public information policies. 

“I want to make sure that this hasn’t happened, Mark. So we will look at our processes to see what it is we’re doing here in the Metropolitan Police Department to make sure those policies and those practices are consistent with the best practices for FOIA,” he said.

Contee said he was limited in what he could say because of the pending lawsuit.

When asked about a watchlist, Mayor Muriel Bowser did not deny its existence. 

“What I will tell the chief and all directors is they have to handle FOIA requests expediently, and they should be agnostic to who the questioner is,” she said. 

Ward 7 ANC Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Greene confronted the mayor about the list at an unrelated news conference she held Thursday.

“Am I still on this FOIA blacklist? Why are my First Amendment rights being violated here in the District of Columbia?” he said. 

MPD practices have run counter to the First Amendment said Scott Michelman, legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia. 

“MPD’s unlawful practice undermines public trust and makes it harder for the D.C. Council, elected officials, and the public to learn about MPD's action and, if necessary, to hold them accountable,” a statement by Michelman said in part. “MPD’s blacklist practice is part of a broader pattern of resistance to transparency and public accountability. […] The MPD’s stubborn resistance to basic transparency laws strongly implies they know they have something to hide.”

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