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St. Louis police attorneys ask judge to dismiss part of open records lawsuit for homicide data

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in St. Louis.

A St. Louis circuit court judge will hear arguments Wednesday on a lawsuit claiming the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

The suit stems from the department’s refusal to release information about its ability to solve homicides, also known as its clearance rate. Attorneys for the department are asking a judge to dismiss a portion of the case, arguing the plaintiffs do not have the legal authority to bring the claim.

APM Reports, an investigative team with American Public Media, and St. Louis Public Radio sought several years worth of details about killings in the city, including the victim’s name, age, race, the location of the crime and whether an arrest was made. The SLMPD released some data, but has repeatedly refused to provide details about which cases were solved. The department says the status of individual cases is an investigative record that they are not required to release under state law, despite releasing nearly identical information to the Washington Post in 2017.

The First Amendment Clinic at Washington University filed suit in November on behalf of Minnesota Public Radio, the parent company of APM Reports. The law clinic asked Circuit Judge Joan Moriarty to declare clearance status an open record; to force the department to turn over the requested records; and to rule that the department knowingly violated the Sunshine Law. Such a finding from the judge would make the SLMPD liable for civil penalties.

The city has tried multiple times to have the lawsuit dismissed. It asked Moriarty back in February to throw the entire case out, a motion it later withdrew. Attorneys are now asking Moriarity to reject a specific portion of the case because it references a request made by Rachel Lippmann, the St. Louis Public Radio reporter working with APM Reports journalist Tom Scheck on the project.

“On the face of the Amended Petition, the person who submitted the Sunshine request at issue in Count I was Rachel Lippman [sic],” the city wrote. “If anyone was aggrieved by Defendant’s allegedly deficient response, it was the person who made the request, Rachel Lippman. But Lippman is not a plaintiff.”

Attorneys for Scheck and Minnesota Public Radio argue that because he and Lippmann were working on the project together, the department’s refusal to release the records impacted him and made him an “aggrieved person” legally able to sue

Moriarty is unlikely to rule on Wednesday on the larger question of whether the department is required to release the clearance status of individual cases.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.