POST police-misconduct database sneak peek
Why public police-misconduct database is so important; trend of rising public records appeals might be ending; & more
Later this month, the newly formed Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission will be publishing a database with a huge amount of information about complaints against police officers.
Here’s reporting from WBUR’s Grace Ferguson:
The head of the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which is compiling the data, said making the list public is important to show residents that agencies are holding police accountable for misconduct.
“I think people will feel that their complaints are noticed,” said Enrique Zuniga, the commission’s executive director. “That’s an important part of enhancing trust.”
Still, Zuniga acknowledged the database won’t include every single allegation filed against officers in the commonwealth.
More than a dozen agencies still haven’t submitted their data to the state yet. Some departments have only provided complaints for the last few years, even though some officers have worked in the state for decades. And the commission plans to deliberately leave out complaints that are still under investigation.
Despite the limitations, the database will be a huge step forward for police transparency. In the past, acquiring data about police misconduct has required sending public records requests to individual police departments, many of which would stonewall if they even bothered keeping the data in the first place.
Since police departments have already compiled and submitted data to the POST Commission, the information is out there even though the database isn’t live yet. To access that data, I sent records requests to the 12 largest municipal police departments and to three state police departments.
The Massachusetts State Police blew off my request, which was no surprise — despite its budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the department has a reputation for regularly flouting the public records law.
The Massachusetts Port Authority, Lawrence, and Newton also completely ignored my requests.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority refused to provide its current data, saying it was in the process of updating it.
Boston ignored my request. After I filed an appeal, the city’s director of public records, Shawn Williams, said his staff didn’t comply with my request because I sent it by email instead of using the city’s online portal even though the law mandates compliance with emailed requests and does not allow municipalities or agencies to require the use of a specific form. He said the city would respond, but I haven’t heard back yet.
Springfield waited two weeks to respond, then it claimed it would need an additional 20 business days (about four weeks) to comply with my request “because it is unable to search for, segregate and/or review any records … during normal business hours.” All the city needed to do was attach one spreadsheet to an email, and it finally did so after I filed an appeal. Stephen G. Roche, an assistant city solicitor, was apparently desperate for sympathy because he complained to the Public Records Division about my appeal: “It is so hard on our staff when we are trying to respond in good faith and they get attacked, time after time.”
Lowell provided its data to me, but instead of sending the original spreadsheet like I requested, it converted the data to a PDF. There are too many data columns to fit on a single page, so the columns do not line up correctly, making the document difficult to analyze. The city refused to provide the spreadsheet even though the law requires municipalities and agencies to provide records in the format specified by the requester. I filed an appeal, which is pending.
Brockton claimed it did not have a copy of its data and tried to get me to send a request to the POST Commission. It later provided two spreadsheets after I filed an appeal.
Lynn did not respond until I filed an appeal. Then instead of providing the spreadsheet I requested, it provided a PDF of various “Complaint Tracking Sheets,” which were printed then scanned sideways and do not have searchable text. I filed an appeal to force the city to provide the spreadsheet. The appeal is pending.
The only agencies and municipalities that responded without giving me trouble were the Environmental Police, Worcester, Cambridge, Quincy, New Bedford, and Fall River. (However, Cambridge redacted information about 15 open investigations, so I filed an appeal, which is pending.)
Of the 15 municipalities and agencies from which I requested data, all but six have tried to duck their legal obligations, which shows why it’s so important that this information is finally being put in a centralized, public database.
In the coming months, expect to read a lot of reporting about police misconduct made possible by the POST database.
You can download all of the POST data that I have obtained below:
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. You can view the database on my website here. I update it as new stories are reported, and I try to use non-paywalled articles as sources when possible. The database currently has 68 entries, some involving multiple officers. If I missed an incident or made a mistake, please contact me about it — you can read the criteria for including an incident here.
Here are the entries that I’ve recently added:
NBC10Boston: Brockton police chief causes three-vehicle crash, destroying his city-owned vehicle and injuring a woman; State Police found that he was responsible but did not conduct field sobriety test or issue a citation
WCVB: Danvers police sergeant who coached high-school hockey team failed to supervise players, allowing them to conduct racist and homophobic hazing rituals, according to report by Attorney General’s Office; sergeant has been reassigned and will no longer oversee school-resource officer program
Herald News: Fall River agrees to pay $315,000 to settle lawsuit by mother of Scott Macomber, who died in 2016 after being tased multiple times by police officers; city denies wrongdoing
WWLP: Jury awards $92,930 in lost back wages and $350,000 for emotional distress to Black former Greenfield police officer after finding police chief denied promotion because of officer’s race
Boston Globe: Civil rights group files formal complaint on behalf of two Black college students who say they were pulled over, handcuffed, held at gunpoint, and illegally searched by Medford police officers
Shoestring: Video proves that Northampton police officers, including a lieutenant, lied in police reports and falsely arrested two bystanders who witnessed a violent arrest; Northwestern District Attorney’s Office refuses to drop the fabricated charges
Boston.com: Former Somerville police officer sentenced to one year of probation after admitting to pepper spraying handcuffed man who was not resisting and posed no threat
NBC10Boston: Somerville Police Department investigating after police officer unintentionally shoots self with holstered gun
Boston.com: Somerville Police Department investigating after police officer uses force on high-school student
WWLP: Springfield police officer on trial for allegedly participating in assault on group of Black men outside a bar in 2015
MassLive: Two LGBT-rights protesters file free-speech lawsuit against state trooper who issued $200 citations for using bullhorn on public property in 2021
You might be asking yourself if there’s any point to tracking media reports while the POST Commission is preparing to launch its database. I think comparing the two will be illuminating.
Even if police departments scrupulously submit information to POST, the agency is guaranteed to miss some incidents. The police reform law only mandates the collection of information about policy violations and criminal charges, and police departments do not necessarily open investigations when officers are sued. The internal-affairs process has an inherent conflict of interest. Any evidence of wrongdoing a police investigation uncovers can be used against the department, so it’s no wonder that departments don’t always investigate when facing litigation.
I also want to determine what percentage of police misconduct makes the news. This seems especially worthy of attention as local newspapers continue to be hollowed out by layoffs, newsroom closings, and consolidations.
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Appeals Less Appealing?
The number of public records appeals is on pace to decrease for the first time in years, according to data from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office.
Last year, requesters made a record 2,994 appeals, with 997 occurring during the first four months of the year. During that same four-month period this year, requesters made 922 appeals.
If requesters keep making appeals at the same rate, they will make 2,766 this year. If adjusted for the fact that requesters on average make less than one third of appeals during the first four months of the year, the estimate rises to 2981. Both numbers represent a decrease from last year’s total — although the latter number represents only a slight, probably statistically insignificant change.
Both estimates are higher than the numbers for all years prior to 2021 for which data is available, suggesting that appeals might be plateauing rather than trending downward. Of course, we should be cautious about drawing conclusions about future trends.
The number of appeals has increased every year since 2014, when the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office began posting data on its website.
It’s likely that the update to the public records law that took effect in 2017 has been partly responsible for the huge increase in appeals during the past few years. The Public Records Division used to take months to decide appeals, but the updated law requires the agency to reach determinations within 10 business days, making the process much more useful.
At about the same time the update kicked in, Shawn Williams stepped down from the job of supervisor of public records and was replaced by Rebecca Murray. Although I don’t have any numbers to support this, my sense is that Murray has sided with requesters much more often than Williams, whose frequent decisions in favor of government secrecy earned him a nomination for Investigative Reporters and Editors’ tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock award.
These improvements have made appeals more appealing to requesters who have been denied access to records. However, the number of appeals was rising prior to these changes, so the increase might also be attributable to greater awareness of the public records law, changes in technology, and other factors.
I can’t say why appeals have started to slow down during the past few months — but there’s still plenty of time to get this year’s number up and set a new record. If you’ve never made a public records request before, read up on it, make your first request, then file an appeal if things don’t go your way.
Watch the Troopergate Ethics Commission Hearing
Late last month, the Ethics Commission hearing related to the so-called Troopergate scandal concluded. Here’s reporting from MassLive:
“Absolutely not,” Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early, jr. responded to a lawyer Thursday in Boston when asked if he violated a conflict of interest law when handling the arrest report of a judge’s daughter who was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Testimony in the State Ethics Commission hearing regarding an allegation that Early, along with three other public officials, violated a conflict of interest law when handling the arrest report involving a judge’s daughter came to a close Friday.
Lawyers gave their final arguments Friday on the ninth day of hearings, which toiled over the accusations that Early, along with former State Police Col. Richard McKeon, Senior First Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Travers and former State Police Maj. Susan Anderson, violated conflict of interest law when handling an arrest report of a judge’s daughter who was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. A trooper’s report of the arrest included sexually explicit statements allegedly made by the woman as well as a statement that her father is a judge. The statements were later redacted from the report.
I obtained videos of the entire hearing by making a public records request to the Ethics Commission. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can watch them here.
I posted the videos to my new YouTube channel, where I will be sharing audio and video I receive from records requests. Please subscribe if you want to see what else I publish.
MassGOP Not Sending Its Best
Earlier this month, the MassGOP sent out an email soliciting contributions for Rayla Campbell, the Donald Trump-supporting Republican candidate for secretary of the commonwealth.
In 2020, Campbell ran as a write-in candidate for the US House of Representatives. After she failed to get enough signatures to earn a place on the ballot, she sued Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin — but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected her claims. The race was later won by Ayanna Pressley.
Here’s how the MassGOP recounted these events in its email:
The Democrats successfully kept Rayla Campbell off of the ballot when she challenged radical “squad member” U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley two years ago.
But they couldn’t keep a good woman down.
The email continues:
Rayla announced her candidacy for state secretary earlier this year and proceeded to collect over 7,000 certified signatures from registered Massachusetts voters, with about 3,000 more awaiting certification -- far more than enough to guarantee her name will appear on the ballot as a Republican candidate this November.
Rayla is a true Massachusetts patriot and is running to ensure the integrity of our elections. She is committed to bringing transparency to a state office that has operated in the dark for decades.
We are proud to support Rayla, and we hope you join us by making a contribution to her campaign.
The email calls Campbell a “very special candidate,” which is certainly one way of characterizing her.
The year of her last campaign, Republican State Committee member Brock Cordeiro filed a report with Dartmouth Police alleging Campbell threatened him in a voicemail to Tom Mountain, who was then vice chairman of the MassGOP. Campbell was upset that Cordeiro had banned her from a Facebook group and said she would “find out where this little motherfucker lives and beat him a new asshole.” You can read the police report here.
Soon after, Campbell was at a Trump rally in New Bedford, where she used a bullhorn to taunt two young women and got into a brief scuffle with them; the incident was caught on video. Campbell alleged to the New Bedford Police that she was assaulted. According to WBSM, the police department said it intended to file charges against “all parties involved,” but it did not specify any names or charges. You can read the police report here.
Campbell spoke to me via email earlier this year, but she would not answer questions about her views on public records or agree to an interview — and it was probably for the best since I only have use for one asshole.
Thanks for reading! Again, please subscribe to this newsletter — and ideally make it a paid subscription.
Also, please send me tips! I mostly write about public records and police misconduct. I will write about anywhere in the state, and I’m always looking for new things to cover. If you find anything that merits attention in the POST data that I shared, let me know so that I can follow up on it.
I love providing tips too — for example, the Herald News reported on the Scott Macomber settlement after I sent the agreement to the paper. If you’re a reporter who writes about police or criminal-justice issues, send me an email letting me know what towns and/or cities you cover. I will let you know if I obtain any records that might be of interest to you.
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That’s all for now, folks.