Lawsuit: Victims of “grotesque invasion of privacy” ignored by State Police
State Police ignore records requests from lawyer for victims of hidden camera in women’s locker room; Framingham seems awfully secretive about soon-to-launch police drone program
Three years ago, a hidden camera was discovered in one of the last places you would want to find one: a women’s locker room. The insurance company John Hancock found the camera during maintenance work at its former Congress Street headquarters in Boston.
The Massachusetts State Police investigated — but Ilyas J. Rona, an attorney representing victims, says the department has not shared its conclusions and has been ignoring his public records requests for months. Now he is suing for access to the records.
On April 6, 2019, John Hancock notified the public about the camera. The company said that the device was providing a live feed of the locker room and that it was unclear if it saved any images or audio.
“We were shocked and disappointed to learn about this serious invasion of privacy. Once we were alerted to the issue, we immediately launched an internal investigation. We take the safety and privacy of our employees extremely seriously and are working with law enforcement to ensure whomever is responsible will be held accountable for this action,” the company said in a statement at the time.
The State Police told John Hancock that they closed the investigation on January 30, 2020, but the department did not disclose any information to victims, according to Rona’s lawsuit.
Rona, a partner at the law firm Milligan Rona Duran & King, filed the suit last month. He is being represented by Michael J. Duran, another partner at the firm.
“It was unknown how long the camera had been positioned in the locker room to capture video, but for dozens of years women had regularly used the gym as a benefit of being an employee of John Hancock. The scale of the privacy violations against these women is massive and difficult to quantify,” the complaint states. “The victims of the massive privacy invasion have not received any closure. The victims are still in the dark about what steps if any were taken to investigate this privacy violation.”
Rona emailed a public records request to the State Police on October 6, 2021, and the department acknowledged receiving the request the same day.
However, the department never provided the documents or explained that it was withholding documents and why, even though the public records law requires agencies to do so within 10 business days of receiving a request.
Rona emailed additional copies of his request on November 10, 2021, and January 6, 2022. Each time, the State Police acknowledged the request but never complied.
“A total of 109 business days have passed since the Public Records Request was first sent,” says the complaint, which was filed with Suffolk County Superior Court on March 17. “It has been more than two years since the grotesque invasion of privacy was discovered, and more than two years since the investigation was closed. Members of the public, including the victims of this horrific invasion of privacy, have a right to know what was uncovered, how their privacy was invaded, and what efforts the government took in the public interest.”
Rona is not the first person struggling just to get a legally mandated response from the State Police — not even close.
“The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender — verging on a career criminal — when it comes to breaking [the public records law],” the Telegram & Gazette reported in 2013. “The agency often fails to respond to public records requests within 10 days as required by law and sometimes takes months to respond, and then only after repeated prodding by [the supervisor of public records]. … In some cases, state police lawyers simply blew off inquiries from the supervisor of records just as they had those from the person requesting the records.”
Things haven’t changed over the past decade. A CommonWealth magazine article that examined public records appeals found that the State Police continue to be responsible for a sizable number: “The State Police lost 178 of the 181 public records appeals filed against it in 2019, 124, or 68 percent, of them pertaining to the department’s failure to respond to the requests.” The State Police have racked up a huge number of appeals every year since: There were 170 in 2020, and 209 in 2021. So far this year, the department has faced another 56.
The long-running failure of the state’s largest law-enforcement agency to meet its legal obligation to be transparent shouldn’t really be called a failure at all — it is a deliberate decision. With an annual budget in the hundreds of millions, the State Police can buy all the tasers they want and take home lavish overtime with little oversight. The idea that the department cannot hire enough staff to respond to public records requests on time is absurd.
The State Police Department is a bottomless barrel of scandal: state cops committing overtime fraud then making a mockery of the concept of restitution by repaying the stolen money with their ill-gotten pensions, officials hiding exculpatory evidence from drunk-driving defendants, a department head retiring in disgrace after allegedly ordering a state cop to change a police report about a judge’s daughter, a union leader arrested on federal corruption charges, and so on ad infinitum.
It is deeply disturbing, and no coincidence, that this unequivocally corrupt police department has been allowed to decide for itself what it shares with the public for so long. We should all be grateful when someone uses the courts to shine a small ray of sunlight on this shadowy abomination — even if launching it directly into the sun would be preferable.
In addition to the records, Rona’s lawsuit seeks attorney’s fees and expenses.
The case’s first hearing was scheduled for March 28 but was moved to this afternoon. Judge Peter B. Krupp is presiding.
Rona, reached by phone, declined to comment until the case progresses further.
State Police spokesman David Procopio did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A Brief Interlude
This week’s issue is far from over, but before I continue let me say this. If you’re one of the cheapskates who doesn’t pay for this newsletter, you better start doing so right now — don’t make me come after you like I’m Chris-R from Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece The Room: “Where’s my fucking money, Denny?!”
But seriously, please sign up for a paid subscription so that I can keep bringing you issues chock full of sweet, sweet content about government transparency in Massachusetts. It only costs $7 a month or $69 (lol nice) for a full year. I think I’m supposed to say that’s less than you spend on coffee in a month or something, but I don’t drink coffee so what do I know? It’s definitely less than you spend on edibles if you’re into that sort of thing, and it’s a small price to pay for informative journalism that you won’t find anywhere else. If you are a monthly or yearly subscriber, send me an email if you want to be credited at the end of each issue; just let me know what name you want me to use.
If you go the extra mile by becoming a Dump Devotee and spend at least $200, I will make a public records request at your suggestion. I’ll reach out to you by email to discuss what records interest you and how to best go about obtaining them. If the agency doesn’t provide a response, I will file as many appeals as it takes to get one. If the agency does respond but refuses to provide the records or blacks out important information, I will make at least two additional appeals if I believe they have a chance of success. I can’t guarantee results, but I can certainly put in the effort to fight for the release of records that are important to people who make this newsletter possible.
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Anyway, we were talking about grotesque invasions of privacy...
“We Will Educate the Public When We Are Ready To Do So” — Framingham Police to Launch Drone Program With No Public Input
In November, the Framingham Police Department announced that it was using part of a $122,725 grant from the federal government to purchase drones for the purpose of locating missing persons with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and autism. Keeping vulnerable people safe is a laudable goal, but the department refuses to say if the potentially privacy-invading robots will only be used for this limited objective.
After I filed a public records request, the department provided some manufacturer documents (see here and here) related to the three drones it purchased, but it did not provide a policy even though I asked for a copy. “[W]e believe you are receiving a comprehensive response to your request,” Lieutenant Robert Sibilio wrote in a response that made no mention of a policy.
But after I followed up with Deputy Police Chief Ronald S. Brandolini, he explained: “The policy is in draft form and not ready to be released to [the] department/public. I believe the [drone] unit should be set up sometime in May and the policy finalized and available. … After you review the policy next month we welcome any questions to their use.”
I asked whether the department considered releasing the draft policy and seeking input from the public before purchasing the drones.
“A tentative draft was written in order to apply for [the] grant. I did not consider releasing it as we were under a time restraint on applying for the grant. We will review the policy appropriately regarding privacy issues and best practices prior to putting it in effect,” Brandolini responded.
It’s always reassuring when the police say they skipped the step of seeking public input on their decision to buy sketchy surveillance technology because then they might not get to buy it.
Brandolini, no longer under any “time restraint,” would not explain why the department still won’t release the draft policy or whether the department will seek public input before putting the drones to use.
“I will refer to the Chief to make those decisions,” he said.
Police Chief Lester Baker did not respond to emailed questions.
The public records law requires agencies to identify all records they are withholding and explain the legal reasoning for withholding those records — meaning the department’s decision not to disclose the existence of the draft policy in its response to my request was unlawful.
After learning about the draft policy, I filed an appeal with the supervisor of public records. In response, Brandolini said the department was withholding the policy under the deliberative-process exemption, which allows agencies to withhold certain records related to policy positions that are in development. The department is probably legally entitled to withhold the draft policy under this exemption for now — but it is not required to withhold the document, and there’s no ethical reason for doing so.
Brandolini apologized for the department’s failure to notify me about the policy, calling it “a miscommunication between me and the officer responding to the request.” He said the department is not withholding any other relevant documents.
The police department purchased the drones during the tenure of former Mayor Yvonne Spicer. Charlie Sisitsky, the current mayor, took office in January.
Susan Nicholl, the chief of staff for Sisitsky, did not seem eager to answer questions about whether it is appropriate for the department to keep the draft policy from the public or if there will be an open process for residents to offer input.
“Regarding your questions about the current mayor’s intentions: those can be addressed after he sees the revised draft,” Nicholl said. She reiterated that the city is withholding the policy under the deliberative-process exemption.
When I pressed her further, she provided this statement:
Policies developed within the police department are drafted in conversation with subject professionals, police unions, administration; through researching other departments; lessons learned and best practices within the law enforcement profession; and in conjunction with accreditation standards. Once developed, most policies are shared with the public unless exempt. The public will be welcome to submit questions and get timely and accurate answers. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible regarding the operation of the drones.
That’s an interesting way of being “as transparent as possible.” The police department does what it wants, and the public gets to “submit questions” after the fact with no opportunity to witness the decision-making process in real time or play a role in it. The police union gets a say, but residents — the real stakeholders — do not. The boys in blue want toys to spy on you, and the city won’t let anything stand in their way.
Nicholl offered to discuss the matter with me by phone but demurred when I said I would record the call — she wanted to keep the conversation “informal.”
So what will these drones actually be used for? When the department announced it was buying them, it said it was also buying 225 GPS-tracking wristwatches from the company SafetyNet. The plan was for the watches to be provided to vulnerable people so that the police can locate them if they go missing. But if the police can track these people with the watches, why do they also need drones? And why three drones? How often are the police expecting three of these 225 people to go missing in separate locations at the same time?
Framingham — with a population of 72,000 — is also home to the State Police headquarters, which raises further doubts that the city’s modest-sized police department needs its own drones even for emergencies. The State Police have at least 81 drones, according to Federal Aviation Administration data obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Manufacturer documents provided by the Framingham Police Department show its drones are Autel Explorer Evo II series devices. These drones can take extremely high-resolution video — up to 8K, which is eight times the resolution of a typical HD recording. They are also capable of infrared imaging.
Will the cops limit their use of these aerial spy cameras to locating missing people? Or will they put them to other uses — perhaps in criminal investigations or to monitor public gatherings?
Brandolini wouldn’t say.
“Please wait for the policy and you will have all your answers,” he said. “We will be very transparent we have nothing to hide. We will answer all your questions at the appropriate time. I can’t give you definitive answers when the policy is in draft form and still subject to change. We will educate the public when we are ready to do so.”
Frankly, it’s unbelievable that the police department hasn’t decided how it will use its drones considering it plans to launch the program next month. If the department truly doesn’t know, perhaps it shouldn’t have purchased these robo-creepshows in the first place — and either way, it’s unacceptable that it’s making residents wait for answers.
Tracking Police Misconduct with Media Reports
I’m building a database of all allegations of misconduct by Massachusetts police officers that are reported by the news media in 2022. Last week, I added a public version of the database to my website, which you can view here. The database will be continuously updated as new stories are reported. I try to use non-paywalled articles as sources when possible. If I missed an incident or made a mistake, please contact me about it — you can read the criteria for including an incident here.
At some point, I will add a category for each entry (e.g., assault, discrimination, etc), but I’m still deciding on the best terminology to use.
Here are the entries that I’ve added since I last mentioned the database in the newsletter:
MassLive: Two Acton police officers placed on leave after former high-school student claimed the pair had engaged in inappropriate behavior while employed as school-resource officers
Universal Hub: Boston police officer, already facing charges for pointing gun at family members, pleads guilty to federal charge after selling $10,000 scratch ticket for cash to avoid taxes
MassLive: Boston police officer, already under investigation for alleged involvement in January 6 Capitol Riot, might be violating city residency requirement after moving to New Hampshire
MassLive: Boston police officer arrested on child-pornography charges
Universal Hub: Twenty Boston SWAT officers sued after holding elderly woman at gunpoint for more than an hour while looking for 19-year-old man who lived at a different address in 2019
WPRI: Fall River Police Department and district attorney’s office investigating after department’s 2019 and 2020 undercover drug-buy logbooks go missing, affecting an unknown number of criminal cases
MetroWest Daily News: Southborough police chief placed on leave for unspecified reasons
MassLive: Springfield settles for $320,000 with man who tried to make complaint about parking ticket at police station and was assaulted by officer and arrested on false charges; officer previously admitted to assault
WLLP: Two officers found guilty of assault and battery after beating a group of Black men outside a bar while off duty in 2015; two other officers acquitted
MassLive: Springfield settles for $295,000 with second teen who was threatened with violence and false charges by detective during 2016 interrogation
MassLive: One State Police sergeant and 11 troopers fired after refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19
Universal Hub: Superior Court judge temporarily blocks State Police from firing seven troopers who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19
Boston.com: Stoughton police officer resigns amid investigation of his relationship with woman who died by suicide; friends said the woman was pregnant with the officer’s child and that their sexual relationship started when she was a minor
MetroWest Daily News: Wayland police chief placed on leave for unspecified reasons
Patch: Worcester police sergeant faces ethics complaint after flyer lists him as host of fundraiser for Republican candidate for US House of Representatives; state law bars public employees from raising money for political campaigns
Previously, the database included an entry about how the FBI and mayor of Chicopee were refusing to confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation related to the city’s police department. Last week, the FBI arrested Chicopee Schools Superintendent Lynn Clark, accusing her of making false statements in connection with sending threatening messages to a candidate for police chief. I removed the database entry because the alleged criminal behavior was not committed by a police officer.
I hope you enjoyed or were at least enraged by this week’s issue! To reiterate: Subscribe to this dang newsletter, give me your money, etc, etc. Also, a few other quick things before I wrap this up.
On Saturday, I attended a Framingham rally by organizers of the No New Women’s Prison movement. I’m planning on writing more about it later this week, but here’s a quick summary. The state wants to spend $50 million to build a new women’s prison to replace MCI-Framingham, which currently cages about 160 of our fellow human beings. Again: $50 million! And that’s just a low-end estimate. Think of all the better things that money could go toward. Organizers are calling for a five-year moratorium on the design and construction of new jails and prisons in the state. They are asking supporters to call or email Senate President Karen Spilka and urge her to back H.1905, the moratorium bill.
And while we’re on the subject of Framingham — that’s where I live! It would be great to write more about the city, especially since our local paper, the MetroWest Daily News, has really taken the news out of newspaper in recent years — just like every other periodical put through the Gatehouse/Gannett meat grinder. I really, really knew the Daily News had gone to shit when it enlarged the font to hide the fact that it now barely publishes any local news. And apologies to the reporters who work there, because I don’t have anything against them; it’s not their fault the paper is owned by an iniquitous institution intent on enriching itself by killing community journalism in the commonwealth. But if you have any Framingham tips, let me know because I want to check them out. As Batman says, “This is my city.”
Don’t limit your tips to Framingham. I will write about anywhere in the state, and I’m always looking for new things to cover. If you have a frustrating story about trying to obtain public records — and you definitely do if you make requests — tell me about it. You can email me at email@example.com or send me a direct message on Twitter.
Speaking of tips, thanks to Patriot-Ledger reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite for telling me about Ilyas Rona’s lawsuit against the State Police.
And with that, I’m out. Thanks for reading, folks.