A test of transparency: Public records requests yield mixed results from area police departments

  • Northampton Police Station GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Police Station GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A Holyoke police cruiser parks in the train station on Main Street on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/17/2021 8:20:49 AM

NORTHAMPTON — When Gov. Charlie Baker signed the state’s new police reform bill on the last day of 2020, some hailed the law as a landmark improvement.

“This bill was a necessary first step towards achieving systemic change through law enforcement accountability and transparency,” said state Senate President Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland.

One piece of the legislation sought to make police misconduct investigation records more transparent through a change to the state’s public records law. In testing that transparency, however, the Gazette encountered mixed results.

In Easthampton, police say they won’t turn over those documents — there are 17 of them — until the Gazette pays $344.25 for the department to review, redact and photocopy them. That’s after initially attempting to charge $1,687.50 for all the records related to those cases.

Amherst police, meanwhile, took nearly a year before providing the Gazette late last month with its internal affairs reports and the citizen complaints that prompted many of those investigations. The Gazette had to appeal to the state supervisor of records three times before Amherst released those records.

The documents are heavily redacted, and the department’s final investigative reports are far less detailed than those provided by Northampton and Holyoke police. The department is still withholding five records because it says they are related to “domestic violence,” “medical concerns” and a pending court case.

In Holyoke, police have thus far turned over only 31 of the 156 internal affairs records that the Gazette has identified. Most of the documents the department has turned over are more than eight years old. When the Gazette first requested the department’s internal investigation files, the department’s records officer accused the newspaper of attempting “to intimidate and/or harass” the department by asking for them. Since then, the department has not responded to requests for a timeline to complete the Gazette’s public records requests, and has not responded to the Gazette’s offer to narrow the scope of the request.

Those responses came after the Gazette requested years of internal investigative reports from some of the area’s largest police departments to shed light on how local police police themselves.

Only the Northampton Police Department quickly produced documents without attempting to charge a large fee or redacting large portions of them. Northampton police, however, continue to withhold three records from the Gazette, saying they intend to charge $434.70 to redact those files.

Through public records requests, the Gazette has also obtained those police departments’ internal affairs logs — lists of investigations and their outcomes.

In the case of Northampton, the department produced well-organized internal affairs logs that included in spreadsheets the names of those who filed the complaints, identified officers and the investigator, and provided the ultimate conclusion of the investigation.

Other departments were initially less forthcoming.

Both Easthampton and Amherst police departments initially refused to turn over their departments’ logs, instead redacting nearly the entire documents. To justify withholding the logs, both departments claimed exemptions to the state’s public records law for personnel records and investigatory materials.

The state supervisor of records found those arguments unconvincing after the Gazette appealed the denials, and Easthampton and Amherst did eventually turn over their logs. Amherst’s log, however, features nothing beyond the name of the officer and a file number. Easthampton’s logs contain more detailed information, such as the allegations, findings and any discipline.

Both departments’ chiefs of police told the Gazette their departments created those logs after the Gazette requested them, and that they cover only the years in which they have been in office as their departments’ police chiefs.

In Holyoke, the police department’s internal affairs log contains some of the same information as the Northampton Police Department’s log. The document, however, is handwritten with varying degrees of legibility. Some items have been removed with white-out.

New standards

The large police reform bill that Massachusetts lawmakers passed last year — called “An Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth” — sought to open law enforcement misconduct investigations to greater public scrutiny.

The bill clarified that such internal affairs reports don’t qualify as “personnel records,” which typically are exempt from public disclosure. It also established a “division of police standards” that, among other tasks, will track misconduct investigations and establish standards for departments’ internal affairs and officer complaint investigation procedures.

Despite that clarification that internal affairs reports aren’t exempt from disclosure as personnel records, police departments still have many ways they can withhold internal affairs records from the public under some of the other 21 exemptions to the state’s public records law.

In the case of Amherst and Easthampton police, for example, the departments have claimed throughout the public records process that there are other reasons they should be allowed to redact investigatory reports: because of attorney-client privilege, for example, or if the reports pertain to “medical concerns impacting job performance.” The state supervisor of records agreed with Amherst that it could redact any information identifying those complaining against an officer, and the department used that as justification for whiting-out large portions of its records.

When it comes to internal affairs reports, there are also questions over whether those investigations — conducted by the same departments facing complaints — represent a full reckoning with all civilian complaints against an officer.

In a police brutality lawsuit that Holyoke settled in early 2020, for example, the lawyer for a 14-year-old boy beaten by police described then-chief of police James Neiswanger’s “baroque” process of reviewing civilian complaints, alleging that before complaints were investigated, an administrator reviewed them to determine if they had “merit.”

That appears to have been standard practice for other departments, too.

When asked about his department’s internal affairs policy earlier this year, Easthampton Police Lt. Dennis Scribner referred the Gazette to the policy on its website. The department’s internal affairs policy stated that some cases could be “immediately resolved” by the officer in charge if the incident was “not of a serious nature” or arose from a lack of knowledge of the law, policy, or the limits of a police officer’s authority.

Easthampton’s policy also said that the department should take care not to subject employees to “unjust, frivolous or capricious complaints,” though that language has been removed after the city updated its internal affairs policy on Sept. 28. The new policy, which the department said it revised to comply with the new police reform law, also requires logging all complaints the department receives, including those resolved by the officer in charge.

In Amherst, the police department’s policy is similar, noting that in some cases an officer can provide “immediate resolution” of a complaint. Police Chief Scott Livingstone said that all civilian complaints are investigated, and that somebody can make a complaint to the department, the town’s Human Rights Commission or the town manager’s office.

In Northampton, the department outlines on its website the steps to make a complaint. Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said the Northampton Police Department investigates every complaint, “although not all rise to the level of an internal affairs investigation.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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