Explore three decades of complaints against Boston cops
Police department releases data about 8,000 complaints
I’ve got something pretty cool to share. After months of stonewalling, the city of Boston finally provided me with a spreadsheet containing police data about 8,000 complaints and internal investigations spanning nearly three decades.
You can download the spreadsheet here (Excel format) or view the data using a searchable database on my website.
The spreadsheet appears to cover approximately three decades. The earliest entries are from 1993, and the speadsheet was finalized on May 24. The sheet includes all active officers, whether or not they received any complaints. If there were no complaints against an officer, the “Received date” column is marked “N/A.” The database does not include student officers from academy class 62-22.
The police department submitted this spreadsheet to the newly established Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission in June. The 2020 police reform law that established the POST Commission requires all departments to provide data about misconduct allegations to the agency so that it can create a comprehensive public database.
The commission has delayed publishing the database multiple times. In May, the agency told Boston 25 News that the database would be live within a few weeks — that ended up not being the case.
“POST is in the process of creating, organizing, and managing the information we have received from law enforcement agencies,” POST Commission communications director Cindy Campbell recently said. “We do not currently have a target date to make these records public.”
However, I was able to obtain the data from Boston and several other cities by making public records requests.
I requested the data from Boston in April. In August, the city provided a 424-page PDF with summaries of complaints filed between June 2021 and May 2022. After I repeatedly pressed the city to provide the spreadsheet, it finally did so on Friday.
I was stymied in part because of inaction by the Public Records Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office. Even though there is a two-decade-old state Appeals Court ruling establishing that internal affairs records are public documents, the supervisor of public records has declined to rule on appeals related to complaint data that departments have submitted to the POST Commission.
The supervisor has cited a police-union lawsuit about the commission’s officer certification process as the reason for not assisting with these requests. Under the Public Records Division’s regulations, the supervisor can decline to issue a decision if “the public records in question are the subjects of disputes in active litigation.”
The POST Commission has refused to release the data it has received, citing the same lawsuit.
Unfortunately, that meant that the only way to get Boston to provide its data was to contact the city’s public records director, Shawn Williams, over and over again until he finally complied with my request.
Healey Pledges to Honor Records Requests
Governor-elect Maura Healey said Tuesday that she will voluntarily honor public records requests when she takes office in January.
In Massachusetts, the governor’s office, Legislature, and judiciary are not subject to the public records law.
For decades, governors have relied on the Supreme Judicial Court’s 1997 Lambert ruling, which noted that the governor’s office is “not explicitly included in” the public records law. Governor Charlie Baker and his predecessors have addressed records requests on a case-by-case basis, complying when they wanted to release records and invoking Lambert when they didn’t.
“Will you confirm that you will not claim exemption from public record laws as governor, and will you support legislation that at least cuts back whatever exemptions the Legislature and judiciary believe they have?” asked Jim Braude, cohost of the GBH program Boston Public Radio.
“Yes and yes,” Healey answered.
Healey’s commitment to complying with requests is welcome news, although the details matter here.
Even if Healey doesn’t claim blanket immunity, she can still use the law’s numerous exemptions for privacy, personnel information, deliberative processes, and more to withhold countless records. And if Healey misuses any of these exemptions, it’s not clear what recourse the public will have.
Rebecca Murray, the last supervisor of public records, took the position that the governor’s office is not fully exempt from the law. But Murray’s stand amounted to nothing because the supervisor must rely on the attorney general to enforce the law in court. The attorney general disagreed with Murray’s interpretation of the law — and that attorney general was none other than Healey.
The current supervisor, Manza Arthur, has not yet issued any decisions about requests to the governor.
If someone decides to sue Healey for records, there’s no way of predicting how the courts will react — but it’s quite possible they will fall back on Lambert as precedent, and that possibility might dissuade lawyers from bringing such suits in the first place.
Ultimately, the Legislature should update the law to ensure that the public doesn’t have to rely on the good graces of the governor to access important information. Now that voters have elected a governor willing to open up her records for public inspection, reform does seem possible.
But it seems much less likely that legislators will be willing to give up their own records. Past efforts to remove the exemptions for the governor and Legislature have failed, including in the last session.
Be ready to email your state lawmakers come January, when the next session starts.
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If haven’t read my story from Monday about an investigation of alleged excessive force by police in Berkshire County, please check it out.
That’s all for now.