The Amherst Police Department in Massachusetts has refused to comply with a public records request from PINAC that asked for the internal affairs records for two police officers who were named in a civil rights lawsuit this month.
According to the suit filed by Joshua Sampson, Amherst police officers Marcus Humber and Jamie Reardon refused to provide the teen with his epilepsy medication after arresting him in June 2014, which led to life-threatening seizures that caused language and short-term memory problems.
PINAC requested the officers’ internal affairs files to see if they have histories of misconduct.
In response, the department refused to turn over any of the documents, citing the privacy exemption to the Massachusetts public records law. However, the department’s response is at odds with Massachusetts case law. In the 2003 case Worcester Telegram & Gazette vs. Chief of Police, a state appeals court found that internal affairs records are public records.
According to the ruling, which was written by Judge Joseph Grasso, internal affairs records are public records because their purpose is to inspire public trust. Writes Grasso:
The internal affairs procedure fosters the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the police department, its employees, and its processes for investigating complaints because the department has the integrity to discipline itself. A citizenry’s full and fair assessment of a police department’s internal investigation of its officer’s actions promotes the core value of trust between citizens and police essential to law enforcement and the protection of constitutional rights.
That case dealt with the personnel exemption, not privacy exemption, but made it clear that internal affairs records are generally considered public records in Massachusetts.
Additionally, according to a guide by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, which oversees the public records law, “The denial [of a public records request] must include a citation to one of the statutory exemptions upon which the records custodian relies, and must explain why the exemption applies” (emphasis added).
However, the Amherst Police Department’s response does not explain why the officers’ internal affairs records are exempt; it merely contains general information about the exemption.
Even if some of the information in the officers’ files is exempt, the police department is required to redact the exempt information rather than withhold the records in their entirety if possible.
The department’s response was written by Captain Ronald Young, the head of the administrative division.
PINAC has filed an administrative appeal with the Secretary of State’s Office, which is likely to order the police department to provide a new response to the request that complies with the law. Unfortunately, the appeals process can take months, and agencies do not always comply with the orders because of a lack of enforcement by state officials.
So, regardless of what the law is, the Amherst Police Department has already succeeded in delaying the production of the records for a significant amount of time. But we won’t sweat it—it just means that the department, and the two officers named in the lawsuit, will make an extra appearance in the news cycle.
You don’t have to be a journalist to file a public records request, and you don’t have to live in Massachusetts either. If you’d like to get involved in the open government community, try reading up on your state’s Freedom of Information law and filing your first public records request today. MuckRock, a Boston-based news site, is building guides for every public records law in the country, which you can read here. Once you’re familiar with your state’s law, you can send an agency a request on your own or you can sign up for MuckRock and use their tools to assist you.