Making a public records request at the Massachusetts State Police HQ
On October 11, a Massachusetts state trooper shot two unarmed men at a traffic stop in Medford. The state police have claimed that the driver, a 19-year-old man, attempted to hit the state trooper with his vehicle. The driver has been charged with numerous crimes including assault with a dangerous weapon. No allegations of wrongdoing have been made against the passenger. So far, the only evidence presented to the public that either of the shooting victims did anything wrong is the word of the very state trooper who shot them.
There’s a fairly easy way to tell whether or not the trooper is telling the truth about the shooting incident. Many police departments install dashboard cameras (dashcams for short) in their patrol cruisers. These cameras create objective records of traffic stops made by police and are therefore the perfect way to determine whether or not police have acted appropriately. If the Massachusetts State Police use dashcams, the videos recorded by them would allow us to see for ourselves whether the state police acted appropriately during shooting incidents like the one in Medford or another recent incident where a state trooper killed a mentally ill man who allegedly attacked him with a pen.
I’m actually not sure if the Massachusetts State Police use dashcams. Many police departments don’t use them at all. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 61% of local police departments and 67% of sheriff’s departments used dashcams in 2007. Myong Joun, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in police misconduct, told me it’s his understanding that the state police only have dashcams installed in certain unmarked vehicles, not their standard marked vehicles.
Nevertheless, I decided to make a public records request to determine if a dashcam was installed in the vehicle of the state trooper who shot the two people in Medford and to obtain a video of the shooting if it exists. Under the Massachusetts public records statute, all records kept by local and state government agencies must be provided to members of the public upon request unless they fall under certain exemptions. Government agencies are required to respond to a request within 10 days either by agreeing to disclose the records or by denying the request and explaining which exemption the records fall under.
I decided to submit my request in person at the Massachusetts State Police Headquarters which is located in Framingham. On October 15, KT of MassOps accompanied me to the State Police HQ and we both recorded the visit with our cellphones so we would have an objective record of what happened. I would recommend bringing a camera along to anyone who decides to make public records request to a police department or any government agency at all in person. The video can serve as proof that the request was made and, if the video is posted online, what date it was made on.
When we arrived at the State Police HQ, I spoke to Steve Lane at the front desk and told him that I wanted to submit a public records request. He walked off, grabbed a form, passed it to me, and told me I needed to fill it out to make a request.
Under the public records law, a government agency cannot require a person to use a specific form to make a records request. A simple letter is considered a legitimate public records request and government agencies are obliged to accept and comply with such requests. In fact, records requests can even be made verbally with no written request at all. According to “A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law,” a document published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth:
A written request is not required but is recommended. An oral request made in person (not by telephone) is permitted…
There is no specific form that must be used to request records, nor is there any language that must be included in such a request. A records custodian may provide a form, but cannot demand that the form be used.
I had already typed up my request and didn’t feel like wasting my time rewriting an almost page-long letter by hand for no reason, so I informed Lane that I had already written out my request and that he could not require me to use the form. He immediately became angry and accused me of “trying to cause a problem.” He then told me that he would get someone else to help me.
While I waited, I looked over the form that Lane had handed me. He had actually given me a form for requesting a crash report from the Registry of Motor Vehicles which means that the form wasn’t even relevant to the records I was trying to request. I pointed this out to Lane, but he insisted that I still had to fill it out.
Lane also expressed hostility toward the fact that KT and I were recording him.
Soon, I was greeted by Sergeant McGilvry. I told him that I was trying to make a records request. He told me that even though I was already present at the State Police HQ, I would need to mail my request in which is not true. When I insisted on submitting the request in person multiple times, McGilvry finally told me he would make a phone call to determine if he could accept my request. Before he walked off, he told me that I needed to “just grow up” because he was upset about the fact that I was recording him.
A couple minutes later, McGilvry came out a second time and accepted my letter without offering an apology for the incorrect information he had given me.
Although the public records statute has its flaws, it is one of the most important tools in our state for ensuring that police departments and other government agencies are transparent to the public. It’s incredibly disappointing, to say the least, that employees working at the main office for the largest police department in the state are so ignorant about the public records statute and treat people who make public records requests with such hostility even though they are required by law to accept and comply with them.
If I was treated like this by the employees of a private company, I’d probably choose to never do business with that company again. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the government, taking your business elsewhere isn’t an option.
I’ll post an update as soon as I’ve gotten a response to my records request from the state police.
Here’s the full text of my public records request:
To whom it may concern,
This is a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10) for records from the Massachusetts State Police. As you may be aware, the Public Records Law requires you to provide me with a written response within 10 calendar days. If you cannot comply with my request, you are statutorily required to provide an explanation in writing.
I would like to know if the Massachusetts State Police use dashboard cameras (or dashcams) which are video cameras that can be mounted in cars. I would like copies of any policy documents related to dashcams.
A state trooper was involved in a shooting incident in Medford on October 11. According to news reports, the trooper shot two men during a traffic stop after the driver allegedly tried to hit him with his vehicle. If the trooper involved in the shooting had a dashcam installed in his cruiser, I would like a copy of the video and audio of the traffic stop and shooting incident as well as the events leading up to it. I would also like dashcam videos with audio from any other state police vehicles that were present at the scene of the shooting. I would also like copies of any police reports, notes, and other documentation of the shooting.
It is my understanding that the shooting incident in Medford is currently the subject of an ongoing investigation. As you may be aware, there is an exemption to the public records law for information related to ongoing investigations by law enforcement, however, be aware that this exemption only applies to a record if it can be shown that releasing the record to the public would prejudice the results of the investigation.
If you withold a record under any exemption at all, I expect you to specify which exemptions you are citing and to articulate why the exemption applies to the record in question. If you withold any records under the investigatory exemption, I would still like copies of the records after the investigation is complete. Please take steps to ensure that you do not destroy any records I have requested.
Please provide a list of all documents that my request applies to as soon as possible. I recognize that you may charge reasonable costs for copies, as well as for personnel time needed to comply with this request. If you expect costs to exceed $10.00, please provide a detailed fee estimate. I would appreciate it if you waived any fees associated with the fulfillment of this request as I believe the release of these documents is in the public interest.
I appreciate you taking time to read over and consider this public records request. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.
Note that when I typed up my request, I wrote that the shooting happened on October 15 which was the date I was submitting the request, not the date of the shooting. I realized my error while in the parking lot of the State Police HQ and crossed out the 15 with a pen and wrote in 11 which is the correct date.