NEW BEDFORD — The state supervisor of records has determined the city has not met its legal burden in withholding from disclosure records related to alleged police misconduct that The Light requested.
The City of New Bedford now has 10 business days to provide a response consistent with the supervisor’s order and Massachusetts public records law.
“The City Solicitors’ office received the Supervisor of Records report earlier today, and the report is under review,” said Holly Huntoon, a city spokesperson, by email.
In late April, The Light requested records regarding allegations of misconduct against a New Bedford police officer. The city cited “exemption (c)” under Massachusetts public records law, more colloquially termed the “privacy exemption,” to support its withholding of the responsive records.
The exemption applies to personnel and disciplinary reports, but the secretary of state’s public records division notes police misconduct records do not fall under it.
“Based upon the update to Exemption (c) where the amendment states that this ‘subclause shall not apply to records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation,’ it is unclear how the requested records can be withheld,” wrote Manza Arthur, the supervisor of records, in a letter to a city attorney. “Therefore, I find that the City has not met its burden to withhold the responsive records pursuant to Exemption (c).”
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The Light’s appeal on its other request on the outcome of an investigation into the misconduct allegations against the police officer — for which the city accepted payment of $134 and then said it was withholding all records under the same exemption — is pending before the state supervisor of records.
Per a state guide to the records law, the privacy exemption is the most frequently used one by government agencies. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, previously told The Light that this exemption tends to be abused to conceal misconduct by government employees.
In the letter, the supervisor of records noted that police disciplinary records differ from standard records for other government employees “due to the significance of maintaining the transparency of the police department’s internal affairs process.”
The supervisor cited a 2003 court case, wherein the Worcester Telegram & Gazette sued the Worcester Police Department for the release of an internal affairs record on alleged misconduct by a Worcester officer.
“Unlike other evaluations and assessments, the internal affairs process exists specifically to address complaints of police corruption (theft, bribery, acceptance of gratuities), misconduct (verbal and physical abuse, unlawful arrest, harassment), and other criminal acts that would undermine the relationship of trust and confidence between the police and the citizenry that is essential to law enforcement,” stated the Appeals Court on the case.
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“A citizenry’s full and fair assessment of a police department’s internal investigation of its officer’s actions promotes the core value of trust between citizens and police essential to law enforcement and the protection of constitutional rights,” it continued.
Despite the 2003 landmark ruling, the public and newsrooms still face challenges in trying to obtain police misconduct records.
The Telegram & Gazette 17 years later was once again fighting the city of Worcester to obtain the same kind of police misconduct records. In 2021, WBUR sued the Boston Police Department for its withholding of records regarding police misconduct, and reported then-Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey’s administration repeatedly withheld records on police officers accused of misconduct.
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com