Oct 28 2013

Why are the Massachusetts State Police camera shy?

Dr. Q

On October 11, a Massachusetts state trooper shot two unarmed men at a traffic stop in Medford. The state police have claimed that the trooper feared for his life and was forced to shoot when 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. The passenger, who was also shot, has not been accused of doing anything wrong — nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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. Personally I don’t think that’s good enough. When a police officer shoots someone, we deserve real evidence that the shooting was justified.

There’s a very simple measure that the Massachusetts State Police can take to assure the public that they are justified when they shoot: they can go on camera.

Many police departments use video cameras to bring more transparency to their actions. One type of camera that police departments use is the dashboard-camera (or dashcam). These cameras are mounted in a police cruiser. They can be used to examine why a police officer pulled someone over and what happened during the traffic stop.

A dashcam would have been perfect for recording the police shooting in Medford. A dashcam also could have been used to record another recent incident during which a state trooper shot a mentally ill man to death after the man allegedly tried to kill the trooper with a pen.

Dashcams are not a new technology. They have been in use for decades. After the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating — an incident that was only brought to the public’s attention because a bystander video-recorded it — the Christopher Commission, a blue ribbon commission appointed by the mayor, recommended that the Los Angeles Police Department begin using dashcams. The Christopher Commission wrote that dashcams offered “A promising possibility for reducing excessive force and assisting the LAPD and the City in defending civil litigation.” The use of dashcams would likely reduce excessive force claims “because the tapes demonstrate that the officer acted appropriately and because officers would be more careful to use force appropriately.” The Commission suggested that the cameras might even pay for themselves by reducing the number of lawsuits against the LAPD.

Since the Christopher Commission wrote its report over two decades ago, dashcam use by police has become much more common, although it is still not universal. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 61% of local police departments and 67% of sheriff’s departments used dashcams in 2007.

A more recent and very promising idea is having police attach wearable cameras to their clothing (I’ve sometimes heard them called “bodycams”). In Rialto, California, police recently began using wearable cameras. “In the first year after the cameras were introduced [in Rialto] in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period,” according to The New York Times. Bodycams would be useful for recording shootings that don’t occur at traffic stops such as the recent fatal shooting of Denis Reynoso by the Lynn Police Department.

Unfortunately, the Massachusetts State Police, the largest police department in the state, still haven’t gotten with the times. I recently submitted a public records request to the Massachusetts State Police asking for any dashcam videos of the Medford shooting and any policy documents related to dashcams. Here’s what I was told:

Please be advised that no video recording was created relative to your request. Further, the Department does not utilize dash-mounted video cameras in Department vehicles. Therefore, the Department does not have policies pertaining to the use of such equipment to provide to you.

If you think the idea of requiring police to be on camera constantly is ridiculous, consider what two Dallas, Texas police officers recently did when they thought they weren’t on camera. The officers shot a mentally ill man who was just standing still then lied on their police report, saying that the man lunged at them with a knife. Thankfully, their lies were exposed when the shooting was recorded by a nearby surveillance camera.

Police are human beings, not angels. They can commit crimes and lie just like everyone else. When police shoot someone, we shouldn’t have to take the word of the police on faith.

It’s about time the Massachusetts State Police and all the other police departments in the state start going on camera.

Oct 17 2013

Making a public records request at the Massachusetts State Police HQ

Dr. Q

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.

Aug 21 2011

Man in hospital after Framingham officer strikes him with cruiser

Dr. Q

According to The MetroWest Daily News, a man was hospitalized during the early hours of Saturday morning after Framingham police officer James Wright struck him with his cruiser on Waverly Street. The man was reported as being in critical condition.

Framingham Police Lt. Ron Brandolini told the Daily News that the man appeared to be drunk and stumbled off the sidewalk in front of the cruiser. Based on this description, it sounds as though the man who was struck by the cruiser was at fault, not Officer Wright. But, of course, we only have the police department’s side of the story.

At the time of the accident, Officer Wright was responding to a non-emergency call and was not using his emergency lights. If Officer Wright was driving at an excessive speed or otherwise driving negligently, then he might be the one at fault.

At this point, there isn’t really enough information to place the blame on either of the involved parties.

There is one piece of technology that could easily clear matters like these up. Over the past several decades, many police departments across the country have been relying on dashboard-mounted video cameras (often called “dashcams” for short) to record their officers’ driving and interactions with the public.

According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 61% of local police departments regularly used dashcams in 2007. These departments used approximately 41,000 dashcams. Police departments across the United States operated an estimated 286,000 cars in 2007 which means that only about a quarter of police vehicles were outfitted with dashcams.

I was curious to know if the Framingham police used dashcams, so I searched their website. When I was unable to find any information about them, I called the department. A dispatcher told me that not a single one of the department’s vehicles is equipped with a dashcam.

Unless a surveillance camera or a bystander with a camera happened to record the accident on Saturday, we may never know exactly what happened.

If the Framingham police were to install dashcams in their cruisers, they could greatly benefit the residents of Framingham. Anyone who felt that they had witnessed police misconduct or been the victim of police abuse could request dashcam footage under the Massachusetts public records law and use the footage to file a complaint or sue the police.

Dashcams could also potentially help the police. Footage recorded by dashcams could be used as evidence in criminal cases. It could also be used to defend the Framingham police against baseless accusations of brutality and misconduct.

If you have any experience obtaining dashcam footage from a Massachusetts police department under the public records law, leave us a comment or send us an email using our contact page.