Nov 16 2013

Student charged with wiretapping for recording Boston police

Dr. Q

It’s been more than a year since the City of Boston paid out over $200,000 in settlements to people who were falsely arrested and charged with felony wiretapping for video-recording cops, but Boston police still haven’t learned their lesson.

The wiretapping law makes it illegal to secretly record conversations, however, Boston police have arrested a number of people over the years for openly recording and charged them with wiretapping.

Last year, the taxpayers of Boston were forced to pay $170,000 to Simon Glik and $33,000 to Maury Paulino. Both men were arrested — Glik in 2007 and Paulino in 2009 — by Boston police officers for openly video-recording cops making arrests in public.

Last month, Boston police again used the wiretapping law as their excuse for arresting someone who was recording them. This time the victim was a Northeastern student who used his cellphone to record the police during the celebration after the Red Sox won the World Series. Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The Huntington News, a Northeastern student paper, reported the following information about the case:

I was able to catch up with the student charged with wire-tapping, Tyler Welsh, to hear what he did in the confrontation to deserve that charge. He said he and the officer got into an argument after Welsh questioned why he couldn’t go past the barricades the police had set up to contain students near Fenway Park.

“It was like the situation was getting to the point where I thought he wasn’t doing the right thing,” Welsh said. “He was lacking that professionalism and I thought, ‘I’m going to catch this on camera so at least I can go back and have it and be able to see if what he said was okay, was it not okay or was what I was doing okay?”

Welsh described the confrontation with the officer in an all too familiar way for anyone who ever been in the same situation. He described feeling nervous, afraid and losing control of the entire situation. So he put his phone in front of his chest and began to record a video.

It wasn’t the first time the student felt the need to do so.

Two weekends ago, Welsh was outside a party Boston Police shut down in Mission Hill. He encountered five police officers surrounding and pushing one second-year business student, Michael Kerr, and once again felt the need to document the incident.

“I exited the building after asking a cop inside if I could retrieve my jacket, who replied by grabbing me by my collar and yelling at me to leave immediately,” Kerr said. “I asked another officer outside the same, at which point I was surrounded by 5 of them pushing me and calling me a ‘tough guy’ and to ‘stop with all the questions.’”

An October 31 press release from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office confirms that Welsh was arrested for recording the police:

A dozen people arrested in Boston after last night’s World Series win appeared in a Boston courtroom today, with 10 of them being arraigned today on charges related to their alleged conduct, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said.

Of the 12 people arrested by Boston, State, and MBTA Transit police, Roxbury District Court Judge Tracy-Lee Lyons dismissed one case for lack of probable cause and continued a second man’s case for arraignment at a later date. Those two men were a 23-year-old Allston man arrested by Transit Police for trespassing into the tunnel leading from the Blandford Street MBTA stop toward Kenmore Square and a 20-year-old Northeastern University student who allegedly refused to follow Boston Police officers’ orders to leave the area of Kenmore Square and recorded the confrontation on his cell phone. (emphasis added)


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 1 2013

GateHouse Media objects to marathon bombing trial secrecy

Dr. Q

By Michael Gagne
Herald News Staff Reporter

Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

BOSTON — GateHouse Media Inc., the parent company of several Massachusetts-based community newspapers — including The Herald News, the Patriot Ledger and the MetroWest Daily News — on Wednesday submitted a letter to federal district court objecting that the public docket maintained in the criminal case against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is missing entries.

According to the letter, “a review of the docket sheet for this case [United States v. Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev] indicates that numerous entries have not even been listed.”

“Wide swaths of court records have been omitted in their entirety from the docket listings,” the letter states. “The incomplete public docket sheet maintained in this case … does not accurately reflect the materials on file with the Court. As a result, the Newspapers’ constitutionally protected newsgathering and reporting efforts have been frustrated.”

The letter further points out that “only 27 of a total of 69 numbered court filings are available to the press and public,” and notes that at least 42 court filings are missing completely from the docket sheet, “as if they do not exist.”

“The perception of judicial integrity is enhanced when court records are readily accessible to, not secreted away from, the public,” said attorney Michael J. Grygiel, who submitted the letter for GateHouse Media.

“Numerous entries appear to have been omitted from the public docket sheet in this important case,” Grygiel said. “The omissions apparently include motions that have been filed under seal, without notice to the press and public that impoundment was occurring, as constitutional procedures require.”

The missing entries include a sealed motion that was the subject of an electronic order issued on May 20, 2013. Referred to in the order as “30 Sealed Motion,” it was granted in part by the court.

“However, the listed docket entries nowhere include an entry numbered 30 that was evidently the subject of the Court’s order on May 20, 2013, let alone indicate that it was a motion filed under seal. Nor do they indicate whether either party electronically filed a motion for impoundment” as required by court rules, the letter reads.

The letter states that the public has “a presumptive First Amendment right to inspect and copy judicial documents.” That right “ensures that proceedings are fairly conducted, and allows the public to know that the system is working properly. These concerns take on heightened importance in a prominent case such as this, where public education and the perception of fairness are critical.”

The omission of filings leaves the press “without a meaningful mechanism by which to find the documents necessary to learn what has actually transpired in this Court in this case,” according to the letter.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is accused of perpetrating the April 15, 2013, bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon with his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The two explosions killed three people and injured more than 200 others. On April 18, Federal Bureau of Investigations officials released photographs of the pair, identifying them as suspects in the bombings.

In the events that followed, the pair allegedly killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer, carjacked a Mercedes Benz and led police on a chase and shootout throughout Cambridge and Watertown. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died that night from injuries sustained when he was run over by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found the next day hiding under a boat in the backyard of a Watertown residence. He has since received a court hearing during his hospital recovery from injuries sustained in the shootout with police. Tsarnaev also appeared in a pretrial hearing federal district court on July 10, where he pleaded not guilty to 30 charges, which include use of a weapon of mass destruction. He is scheduled to appear in court again in September.

This article was originally published by The Herald News under the title “GateHouse Media files letter objecting to incomplete docket in Tsarnaev case.” It has been republished under a Creative Commons license per Herald News policy. Follow the link to back to see a .pdf format copy of the complaint.


Dec 6 2011

UMass Lowell refuses to disclose disciplinary information about campus police

Dr. Q

In October, I wrote about how a UMass Lowell student was threatened by a campus police officer for video-recording him. Brendan Brown was recording the police respond to a fight outside an apartment when he was confronted by a police officer and told to “Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you.”

In case you missed the first post, you can check out the video below:

In early November, I reported that UMass Lowell Police Chief Randolph Brashears wrote to me that the officer in the video, Noberto Melendez, had been disciplined for his behavior. However, Chief Brashears did not say how Officer Melendez was disciplined. Because I did not believe that Chief Brashears was being sufficiently transparent, I filed a public records request with the police department asking for the internal affairs report, information about how Melendez was disciplined, and training and policy information about the campus police.

Later that month, I received a response to my request from Jack Giarusso, the Executive Director of Human Resources at UMass Lowell. In the letter (see the scans here and here; .jpg format), Giarusso said three things.

First, Giarusso agreed to release the internal affairs report, however, he said that I must pay the University a $245 fee for it. This is because, under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, government agencies can require individuals who request records to pay certain fees. The reason the fee is so high in this particular case is that the University must redact certain pieces private information from the report (information about witnesses) and they estimate the process will take about six hours. Personally, I think it’s outrageous that I’m expected to pay hundreds of dollars just to get photocopies of documents which are supposed to be public records, but that’s the way the law currently works.

Unfortunately, I can’t spare the money to get this report released at the moment. However, as an experiment, I decided to create a ChipIn widget. If you believe it’s important that this report is released to the public and are willing to invest money in it, you can pledge part or all of the fee using the Chipin Widget. If all of the money is raised (or at least most of it; I’m willing to use some of my own money), I will use it to obtain a copy of the report, scan it, and post the scans on the internet. If I don’t manage to raise enough money to get the report released within two weeks, all the money that has been raised will be refunded to the donors.

Next, Mr. Guarusso agreed to release the training and policy information. He said the University will provide these documents to me free of charge because there are only a few pages and no redaction is necessary. As soon as I get copies of these documents, I will scan and publish them.

Finally, Giarusso said that the University will not release any disciplinary information about Officer Melendez because he believes that it is exempt from disclosure under the “personnel” exemption to the public records law.

It’s true that there is a “personnel” exemption to the public records law for certain types of information about government employees in Massachusetts, however, I don’t believe that this exemption applies to disciplinary information about police officers. I tried to contact Giarusso by telephone to discuss this with him, but he told me has no understanding of the public records law and simply writes what his lawyers tell him to. He redirected me to Deirde Heatwole, General Counsel for the University of Massachusetts System.

Yesterday, I sent an email to Heatwole explaining why I do not believe the “personnel” exemption applies to police disciplinary information and asking her to release the information:

Deirdre Heatwole,

I recently filed a public records request with the University of Massachusetts Lowell in an attempt to get copies of several records related to an incident involving the campus police which occurred earlier this year. During the incident, UMass Lowell Police Officer Noberto Melendez threatened a student for video-recording him, saying “Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you.” According to UMass Lowell Police Chief Randolph Brashears, this incident resulted in an internal investigation into Officer Melendez’s behavior. Chief Brashears told me that allegations of misconduct were sustained against Officer Melendez and that he was subjected to disciplinary action, however, he would not say what kind of disciplinary action.

Because I was unsatisfied with this response, I sent a public records request to UMass Lowell seeking copies of the internal affairs report, records of the disciplinary action taken against Officer Melendez, and training and policy information. I received a response to this request from Jack Giarusso, Executive Director of Human Resources. Mr. Giarusso agreed to release the internal affairs report and training and policy information, however, he refused to release any disciplinary information about Officer Melendez. When I contacted Mr. Giarusso to discuss his refusal to release this information, he directed me to you.

Mr. Giarusso’s letter claims that “any information regarding any personnel decisions regarding Officer Melendez, including any disciplinary information, is exempt from disclosure under ch. 4, s. 7, cl. 27 (c) as ‘personnel’ information.”

While this statement may reflect the honest opinion of Mr. Giarusso and his legal advisers, it is false. The issue of whether or not disciplinary information about police officers falls under the “personnel” exemption has already been addressed by the judiciary in Massachusetts.

In a case heard by the Appeals Court (Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corporation vs. Chief of Police of Worcester & another. (AC 02-P-1632) 58 Mass. App. Ct. 1 (2003)), the Worcester Police Department refused to comply with a newspaper’s request to release internal affairs information about an officer who had been accused of misconduct by citing the “personnel” exemption. The Court “conclude[d] that materials in an internal affairs investigation are different in kind from the ordinary evaluations, performance assessments and disciplinary determinations encompassed in the public records exemption for ‘personnel [file] or information.'”

The reason the Appeals Court concluded that such information is not exempt “personnel” information is that the internal affairs process “is a formalized citizen complaint procedure, separate and independent from ordinary employment evaluation and assessment” with the primary purpose of “foster[ing] 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.” The Court noted that “It would be odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny as ‘personnel [file] or information’ the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence.”

It was mentioned in the letter I received that disciplinary information regarding Officer Melendez “is not part of the internal affairs investigation file,” however, this is irrelevant. As the Appeals Court noted, “the legislative term ‘personnel [file] or information’ derives its meaning from the nature or character of the document, not from its label or its repository.” Even if records of the disciplinary action taken against Officer Melendez were placed in a folder labeled “personnel information” rather than in the internal affairs file, this does not alter the “nature or character” of the information. This disciplinary information is still part of a ” formalized citizen complaint procedure” with the purpose of “foster[ing] the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the police department.”

It should be noted that there are certain types of documents containing disciplinary information about police officers that do fall under the “personnel” exemption. In the previously mentioned court case, the Appeals Court refused to release a memo to a police officer informing him that no disciplinary action would be taken against him. However, it is important to note that the Court did so because the memo was an “actual order and notice of disciplinary action issued as a personnel matter,” not simply because the memo contained disciplinary information. Other records containing the same information are available to members of the public who request them.

Because I disagree with Mr. Giarusso’s refusal to disclose disciplinary information about Officer Melendez related to his threat to slap a student for video-recording him, I am asking you to reconsider my request. I request that you provide me with a list of all documents in possession of the University containing this disciplinary information. I also request that you tell me which of these documents you believe to be public records and which you believe are exempt from the public records law.

If you believe that any of these documents are not public records, you are obligated to explain to me why. As Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin writes in his publication “A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law,” a “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). Galvin also writes that “If a records custodian claims an exemption and withholds a record, the records custodian has the burden of showing how the exemption applies to the record and why it should be withheld” (emphasis added). In other words, it is not enough to simply claim, as Mr. Giarusso did in his letter, that disciplinary information about UMass police officers is exempt “personnel” information. If the University wishes to withhold this information, a representative of the University must articulate specific facts about the records in question in order to explain how the exemption applies.

Please be aware that failure to appropriately respond to this letter in a timely manner will result in an appeal being filed with the Supervisor of Records and possibly other action.

I appreciate you taking time to read over and consider this letter. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.

When I get a response to the email, I’ll post an update.

Stay safe out there, cop blockers.


Nov 9 2011

Chief says officer was disciplined, but doesn’t say how

Dr. Q

In October, I wrote about how a UMass Lowell student was threatened by a campus police officer for video-recording him. Brendan Brown was recording the police respond to a fight outside an apartment when he was confronted by a police officer and told to “Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you.”

In case you missed the first post, you can check out the video below:

In my first article about the incident, I reported that UMass Lowell Police Chief Randolph Brashears was investigating the incident and said that he would tell me about the results of the investigation once it was complete.

Yesterday, I finally received a (snail mail) letter from Chief Brashears. Here’s what the letter said (click here for scan in .jpeg format):

I want to thank you again for being the first to bring the matter of the Youtube video to my attention. Officer Noberto Melendez was investigated for his comments to the student on October 8th that was captured on camera. The subsequent allegations against the officer were sustained and he will be disciplined in accordance with University policy and the Teamsters union.

This unfortunate event has given us the opportunity to retrain our entire department concerning recent court decisions that allow citizens to film police and victims of crime who are interacting with the police.

Thanks again for contacting our agency.

I was glad to read certain parts of this letter. It’s good that Chief Brashears has voluntarily released the name of the officer who threatened the student. It’s also good to hear that he sustained the complaint against the officer.

But it’s not enough for Chief Brashears to simply claim that the officer will be disciplined without providing any details. Unless he is transparent enough to say how the officer will be disciplined, there’s no reason for us to believe that he has actually done anything. Even if the officer is disciplined, we can’t gauge whether the discipline was appropriate unless we know how he was disciplined.

Since I believe that Chief Brashears hasn’t been sufficiently transparent about this incident, I decided to send a public records request to his department. I sent out two copies of the request. One was a physical copy that I sent through traditional mail. The other was an electronic copy that I sent via email.

Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, anyone can send a request to any state or local government agency in Massachusetts for copies of records kept by that agency. Government agencies are required to respond to these requests within 10 days and must agree to release the records unless they contain certain types of information that are exempt from disclosure. They may charge fees for providing the copies, but there are some limitations on how much they can charge. (Check here for more information about making public records requests in Massachusetts.)

Unfortunately, there are problems with the public records law. As The Boston Globe documented in a 2009 article, government agencies are often able to get away with wrongfully delaying the release of time sensitive information, using loopholes to charge exorbitant amounts of money for records, illegally destroying public records, and even flat out ignoring requests.

Nevertheless, making public records requests is one of the best options people have for getting answers to questions they have about government agencies in Massachusetts.

The request I sent to Chief Brashears asks for copies of any documents related to his investigation of Officer Melendez (my hope is that the file will contain information about how Melendez was disciplined) as well as documents related to the training he said his officers have received.

You can read the request I sent out below (click here for .pdf version):

This is a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10). 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.

We recently communicated about an incident during which UMass Lowell police officer Noberto Melendez threatened a student for video-recording him. During our correspondence, you were helpful and provided some information to me, however, I feel that there are certain details about this incident that the public should be informed about that you have yet to disclose.

In our previous correspondence, you said that you had investigated Officer Melendez over his conduct. I would like for you to provide me with copies of all documents related to this investigation.

You also said that you had sustained allegations against Officer Melendez and had plans to discipline him “in accordance with University policy and the Teamsters union.” However, you did not say how you planned to discipline him. I would like to know in advance whether or not the file on the investigation contains specific information about what discipline Officer Melendez will be subjected to.

You may be aware that there is an exemption to the public records law for personnel information, however, you should also be aware that this exemption does not apply to documents related to internal investigations by police agencies. The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that “materials in an internal affairs investigation are different in kind from the ordinary evaluations, performance assessments and disciplinary determinations encompassed in the public records exemption for ‘personnel [file] or information'” and are subject to disclosure under the public records law (Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corporation vs. Chief of Police of Worcester & another. (AC 02-P-1632) 58 Mass. App. Ct. 1 (2003)).

In our previous correspondence, you also mentioned that your department has been “retrain[ed]… concerning recent court decisions that allow citizens to film police and victims of crime who are interacting with the police.” I would like copies of any documents related to this training including but not limited to policy memos circulated within the department. I would also like a copy of the department’s written policy on dealing with members of the public who record police officers.

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.

Chief Brashears told me in an email that he has forwarded the electronic copy of the request to the department’s attorney. I’ll post an update when I get a response.