Dispatch from the Dump #1
Welcome to the Mass. Dump Dispatch — a newsletter about public records access in Massachusetts.
I request a lot of public records, mostly from police departments and prosecutors’ offices — and a big focus of this newsletter will be the nitty-gritty of that process. I’ll be telling you what records I’m requesting and why, and I’ll be documenting what I do to ensure I get those records. That might sound a little dry, but it’s actually a crucial issue that deserves some attention. For years, Massachusetts has been criticized for having one of the weakest public records laws in the country. An update was signed into law in 2016 and made some small improvements, but accessing records remains a frustrating experience. Local governments and state agencies regularly refuse to provide records in the timeframe established by the 2016 law (even though it actually gives them more time than the old law), provide vague explanations for why they won’t release records, and attempt to charge unlawful fees.
In a 2020 CommonWealth article that criticized the updated law, Colman M. Herman pointed out that “the volume of public records appeals filed with the supervisor of public records has gone up dramatically. In 2016, the last year that the old Public Records Law was in effect, 1,232 appeals were filed. By 2019, under the new law, that number had astonishingly doubled to 2,494.” One of the biggest problems, as Herman noted, is that many agencies — like the State Police, Boston Police, and the Department of Transportation — act as though they are above the law and simply ignore many of the requests they receive. Since Herman’s article, the annual number of appeals has only increased: There were 2,577 in 2020, and 3,351 in 2021.
The refusal of state and local governments to comply with the public records law is a story in and of itself — and I hope that by writing about the process of requesting records, I can shine some light on this issue.
Right now, I’m working on two public records projects, some other miscellaneous requests, and one non-public records project. If you’re interested in seeing how they turn out, please subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter. If you have any suggestions for records requests, please email me here or leave a comment under one of my posts on Substack; I won’t necessarily be able to get to it right away, but I will try to follow up on things that my readers are interested in.
My current primary project is to obtain so-called Brady lists from all prosecutors’ offices in the state. These are lists of police officers with credibility problems that might need to be disclosed to a criminal defendant if the officer is involved in a criminal case. The name comes from the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which held that prosecutors have a duty to disclose potentially exculpatory information to criminal defendants.
You might remember that back in 2020 — after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd and brought national attention to police violence — there was a flurry of reporting about Brady lists. Here in Massachusetts, WBUR and other local news organizations obtained and published several Brady lists.
I decided to again ask all the prosecutors’ offices in the state for their Brady lists to see if any of the lists have been updated since 2020 or if any of the prosecutors who said they didn’t maintain lists have started keeping them. I also want to obtain the information that led to each officer being placed on a Brady list. As I get the records, I plan on building a database that aggregates all of the lists and links to the records about each officer.
Use-of-Force Records for the Smallest Massachusetts Towns
The three largest cities in Massachusetts — Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — are all horrible when it comes to responding to public records requests. These cities have plenty of resources and no excuses, but they still give requesters a hard time. I was curious if the smallest towns in the state would put up the same amount of resistance. I sent records requests to the six smallest towns in the commonwealth — Gosnold, Monroe, Mount Washington, New Ashford, Hawley, and Middlefield — all of which have populations under 400, according to the 2020 census. On January 9, I requested their police departments’ use-of-force policies, annual use-of-force reports, and use-of-force data.
I’ve already heard back from five of the towns. Mount Washington responded in about half an hour even though it was Sunday night — however, it was only to tell me that it does not have a police department and therefore has no records to provide. Brian C. Tobin, the town’s select board chairman, explained: “Mount Washington … does not have a police force, nor do we have any use of force policies. As acting chief of police, I only issue firearms licenses.”
Monroe, New Ashford, and Hawley also said they don’t have police departments — so I guess this wasn’t much of a test of how these tiny towns handle records requests. Oh well.
Duane Pease, the town administrator for Middlefield, said he forwarded my request to the town’s police department. “Once they have reviewed and given me an anticipated cost, I will forward same to you. Middlefield is a very small community and manned by part-time employees so this will consume much of our time,” he said.
The only town that has yet to respond is Gosnold, which is made up of several islands and is the smallest town in the state. According to the 2020 census, its population is only 70. The town website says it has about 115 registered voters and only about 20 year-round residents.
State Police Use-of-Force Committee Reports — The Massachusetts State Police Department’s use-of-force committee prepares annual reports with statistics showing how often state troopers use force each year. I have gotten a number of these reports released in the past (in 2017, the Boston Globe ran a story after I published some of them). On January 4, I requested all of the reports so I can review the more recent ones. The State Police are notorious for flouting the public records law, so I have no idea when I will receive the reports — but I will post them as soon as I do.
Boston Police Sergeant Shana Cottone Internal Affairs Records — Shana Cottone, a Boston police sergeant, is the leader of an anti-vaccine group and has been making an ass out of herself protesting outside Mayor Michelle Wu’s home and disturbing Wu’s neighbors. Cottone was also recently put on leave from the police department; she claims she is being retaliated against for her stance on vaccines. On January 10, I requested her internal affairs records, which were recently described by the Boston Globe:
In 2017, then-police commissioner William Evans suspended Cottone for 30 days, of which Cottone was required to serve 10, for multiple sustained internal affairs charges. They included a 2011 incident in which Cottone failed to provide a name on request and did not provide medical attention to someone in her custody who had complained of an injury. Both those allegations violated department rules.
In April 2012, Cottone took a civilian in her department cruiser and allowed him to visit with a suspect without authorization, according to a settlement agreement that detailed her suspension. In late September of that year, she “engaged in a verbal and physical altercation while under the influence of alcohol,” the agreement stated.
Lynn Police Racist Text Messages Investigation — Over the weekend, the Boston Globe reported that five Lynn police officers resigned, one was fired, and two were suspended after an investigation of text messages between two of the resigning officers uncovered racist comments and evidence of drug use. On January 17, I requested the investigation report and all internal affairs records for the eight officers, whose names have not yet been made public. In addition to requesting records from the Lynn Police Department, I have also requested them from the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which recently formed as a result of the 2020 police reform law. The POST Commission does not list a records access officer on its website, but I thought it was worth sending a request after learning that the police department submitted its investigation to the commission, so I emailed the executive director.
I also have a bunch of public records I received in 2020 but did not get around to publishing due to health issues I was experiencing at the time. I’ve started to post some of these to my website and will post more in the future. You can check out my database of public records on my website here.
Police Misconduct Database
I’m also creating a database of all allegations of misconduct by Massachusetts police officers that are reported by the news media in 2022. Eventually, I will make the database public.
The database will track the following types of stories:
Stories about police officers who are facing criminal charges
Stories about police officers or police departments that are facing lawsuits; this includes not just lawsuits that are filed by the public against the police, but also lawsuits filed by police officers against their employers for wrongful termination, retaliation, etc.
Stories about police officers who are facing formal complaints/internal affairs investigations
Stories about independent investigations (for example, investigations by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office or the federal Department of Justice) that find evidence of police misconduct
Stories about judicial rulings that reveal police misconduct — for example, a ruling to suppress evidence due to an illegal search or seizure by police
Stories about public allegations by victims or witnesses of alleged police misconduct
To be added to the database, a story must have been first reported by the news media in 2022. It can be a new story or a significant update to an older story.
If you happen to see a relevant story, please send it to me — you can email it to me here, send me a direct message on Twitter, or leave a comment under one of my posts on Substack. The stories that I’m most concerned about accidentally missing are ones exclusive to small local newspapers since I obviously can’t read every paper in the state on a daily basis. I do intend to periodically use keyword searches on news sites and Google to look for stories that I might have missed, but if people send me stories soon after they are published, it would be very helpful.
Below, you can find a list of all the stories that have been added to the database so far:
Boston Globe: Retired Boston police detective investigated over false testimony in two murder trials for which convictions were later overturned
Boston Globe: Boston police sergeant who heads anti-vaccine group put on leave amid internal affairs investigation
Boston Herald: Boston police sergeant who heads anti-vaccine group violates city vaccine mandate by eating at restaurant without showing proof of vaccination
Associated Press: Boston Police Department’s inclusion of Salvadoran asylum seeker in gang database was not based on credible information of gang membership, according to federal appeals court ruling
Boston Globe: Boston police detective who in 2020 was arrested on drug charges in NH was accused of assaulting two women and attempting to rape one of them, according to affidavit
DigBoston: Filmmaker says he, his wife, and crew are being harassed and investigated under false pretenses by a Boston police detective and the FBI
CommonWealth: Boxborough police chief put on paid leave amid FBI investigation
MassLive: Mayor of Chicopee declines to confirm or deny whether there is an FBI investigation of the city’s police department
WPRI: Fall River police officer who in 2019 was charged with multiple assaults and falsifying police reports is fired
Boston Globe: Five Lynn police officers resign, one is fired, and two are suspended after investigation uncovers racist text messages and evidence of drug use
Universal Hub: Two former Transit Police lieutenants placed on pretrial probation after agreeing to repay thousands of dollars stolen through overtime fraud
Universal Hub: State troopers unlawfully stopped driver, leading state Appeals Court to suppress evidence in OUI case
MassLive: Judge declines to suppress evidence but criticizes state troopers for using poorly translated consent form when obtaining DNA sample from Spanish-speaking murder suspect
Scope Boston: Former Stoughton police officer who was fired over social media post sues department for wrongful termination
That’s all for now, folks. I don’t know exactly how often I will publish yet, but I’m aiming to put out a letter like this — one that updates you all about what I’ve been working on — at least once every couple weeks. I’ll also sporadically post other pieces of writing like those I sometimes contribute to DigBoston. If you’re interested in reading about public records or police misconduct, please subscribe.