NEW BEDFORD — The city is withholding records regarding allegations of workplace misconduct against a New Bedford police officer, in response to a public records request filed by The Light.
An attorney with the solicitor’s office said the city would be withholding the records in full, after the office assessed and accepted payment from The Light to process the records.
“These are police misconduct records that we’re entitled to under the public records law,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It’s a bad look and it’s a bad policy to take money for a public records request that ultimately you’re not going to fulfill.”
The Light requested several records, including the outcome of an investigation into the misconduct allegations against the police officer.
Specifically, the city solicitor’s office is citing an exemption in Massachusetts public records law, termed the “privacy exemption,” that applies to personnel and disciplinary reports. However, the secretary of state’s public records division notes police misconduct records do not fall under that exemption.
The exemption applies to “personnel and medical files or information and any other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; provided, however, that this subclause shall not apply to records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation,” according to a letter from the state’s supervisor of records.
The state’s Appeals Court has held that police misconduct investigations are different from a standard personnel evaluation or report.
“[T]hese documents relate to the workings and determinations of the internal affairs process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence,” according to the secretary of state’s division of public records.
“There is very strong case law saying that police misconduct records should be released and that there’s a great public interest in communities knowing how their police departments are operating,” said Silverman, who is also an attorney.
According to a state guide to the records law, it is the most frequently used exemption. Silverman said that not just in Massachusetts, but across New England, the personnel exemption tends to be abused to conceal misconduct by government employees.
Regarding payment, it is typical to receive records from an agency after submitting payment, even if they are minimally or substantially redacted — meaning some of the information remains hidden and blacked out.
Agencies are allowed to assess fees for time spent reviewing and redacting records. Last month, The Light paid the city about $134 to process the request.
“Usually, when you get to the point when a fee needs to be paid, there’s no question that the records being requested are in fact public and will be provided once that money is received,” said Silverman.
After receiving the records denial, The Light asked Associate City Solicitor Nicholas DeMarco if the city would be providing a refund for the records fee.
“The City responded to your public records request yesterday,” DeMarco said by email on Thursday morning. “Please refer any follow-up questions regarding your request or the response provided to you, including but not limited to your question concerning a refund, to the City’s [public information officer].”
Holly Huntoon, the city’s PIO, said Thursday afternoon that the solicitor’s office would follow up with The Light on its questions.
The Light has filed an appeal with the state’s supervisor of public records, as well as an appeal on a related request in which the city is applying the same personnel exemption regarding the officer’s alleged misconduct.
“We have a public records law to help create trust between citizens and the government,” Silverman said. “So those in government … should be going out of their way to help the public get the information it’s entitled to and not just take its money.”
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just create a “Copwatch” program and let the citizens monitor the conduct of their community’s police departments. It would operate similar to a “Neighborhood Watch” program. No more IA reviews needed or coverups by the local police unions.
Why are you acting surprised that law enforcement is not following the law? Don’t you know that laws apply to the little people and not us?
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