The lawsuit claims the “watchlist” targets critics who request public records with the potential to embarrass the department.
A recently filed lawsuit alleges that the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department keeps a “watchlist” of critics.
According to ABC News, the complaint was filed by criminal defense attorney Amy Phillips, an “outspoken critic” of the department. Phillips said she decided to file a lawsuit after a former city employee told her that the police department has a “watchlist” of critics.
The same source, says ABC News, told Phillips that her name is on the list.
While the Metropolitan Police Department has yet to release any public information about its alleged watchlist, Phillips said she is likely included because she requested information that “embarrassed” the agency.
Phillips now asserts that the watchlist, if it exists, is a “constitutional violation” which discriminates against people who request public information on the basis of “content and viewpoint of prior or anticipated speech.”
“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 states.
However, Phillips is not demanding extensive damages: if she wins her case, she simply wants the city to pay her attorney’s fees and award her token damages of $1.
Instead, Phillips is asking a Washington, D.C., court to issue an order prohibiting the agency from keeping a watchlist of its critics and to create a program to ensure continued compliance.
“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,” Philips’ lawyer, Charlie Gerstein, told ABC News in an interview.
According to Phillips, the Metropolitan Police Department uses its watchlist to withhold information from critics that might otherwise be easily accessible through the Freedom of Information Act.
While the department might be willing to impart some information to non-listed persons, Phillips said that inclusion on the watchlist means that law enforcement may request fees, delay releases, or otherwise refuse to comply with freedom of information requests.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser told ABC News that, while she has yet to see the lawsuit, she is taking the accusation seriously because “all FOIA requests should be handled as expeditiously as possible.”
Hugh Carew, a police spokesperson, told ABC News the department cannot comment on 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.”