Oct 19 2013

Worcester police reviewing appropriateness of officer’s reality show audition tape

Dr. Q

The Telegram & Gazette reports:

A city cop’s three-year-old audition video for a reality show, in which he strips from his department-issued uniform down to his underpants, has now raised the eyebrows of police officials.

Police Chief Gary J. Gemme confirmed Friday night that police are internally reviewing the video created by veteran Officer John M. McGuiness, who currently works the patrol wagon and in the cell room. The officer, who has been on the job for roughly 20 years, has not been suspended, the chief said.

The just over two-minute video features Officer McGuiness as he auditioned for what he says is a reality show in the Boston and Cape Cod area called Wicked Summer. Posted on the web site Vimeo.com, the video description says it was filmed for the casting company.

In it, Officer McGuiness says he is an openly gay police officer and expresses his desire to be cast for the show, which was never made.

Although the investigation has just begun, the chief said it doesn’t appear there is any type of violation that would merit suspension or termination of Officer McGuiness. There was no intent to disrespect the department’s badge or the department, the chief said.

There are department regulations involving police uniforms and badges for personal benefits.

“I think the only issue I have is in regard to prominently displaying the police badge, because using that badge in that context may not be appropriate,” he said. “That is something we will evaluate. On the surface it doesn’t appear to be anything that would result in serious disciplinary action.”

The chief said the review has just began and a determination would be made upon the review’s completion.

Officer McGuiness has been an excellent employee during his time on the force, Chief Gemme said. The context of why the video was made, the venue for which the video was intended to be aired and how the video became public must all be looked at by police officials, he added.

Here’s the video:

Oct 18 2013

Worcester police officer already under house arrest now charged with rape, assault

Dr. Q

A Worcester police officer who has been under house arrest while facing assault and drug charges is now facing new charges of rape and assault. The Telegram & Gazette reports:

A Worcester police officer under house arrest for an alleged domestic assault is also being charged with four counts of rape and three counts of assault and battery.

Robert A. Farrar, 42, of 2 Misty Meadow Lane, Oxford, is to be arraigned Nov. 11 in Dudley District Court.

Thursday, a clerk magistrate found probable cause against Officer Farrar on the additional charges of rape and assault and battery.

Officer Farrar had been charged previously with assault and battery, aggravated assault and battery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a belt) and possession of Percocet, all in connection with an alleged domestic assault Sept. 26 at his home at 170 Prince Road, Southbridge.

In both cases, Judge Timothy M. Bibaud allowed a motion, made by the district attorney’s office, to impound the probable cause narratives.

Officer Farrar is a 19-year veteran of the Worcester Police Department. He was placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy. As a result, the Worcester Police Department’s Bureau of Professional Standards is conducting an internal investigation.

This police officer has been charged with ten violent crimes, yet has been given a paid vacation at taxpayer expense.

Update (11/14/2013): The Telegram & Gazette reports that Farrar is no longer under house arrest.

A Worcester police officer who has been under house arrest for more than a month no longer has to wear an electronic monitoring device as he awaits trial in a domestic assault case.

On Tuesday, lawyer Anthony M. Salerno made an oral motion for removal of the electronic monitoring device of his client, Officer Farrar.

Mr. Salerno said his client has been under electronic monitoring for more than a month and has shown excellent compliance with all terms and conditions placed upon him.

Assistant District Attorney John Sares objected to the motion for removal.

During a short recess, Judge Bibaud called Judge Robert J. Pellegrini, who originally ordered the electronic monitoring device to be placed on Officer Farrar, before allowing the motion for removal. As a result, Officer Farrar has been restored to previous conditions of bail and personal recognizance.

In addition, Judge Bibaud allowed a motion to impound the address of the defendant’s sister’s home, where Officer Farrar has been staying since his release. At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Officer Farrar returned his electronic monitoring device to Dudley District Court.

Oct 13 2013

Worcester prosecutor transferred after encounter with police sergeant

Dr. Q

A Worcester assistant district attorney was recently transferred to a different court by the district attorney for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but are apparently related to a video-recorded incident involving the assistant DA and a Worcester police sergeant. According to media reports, the incident may have been some sort of sexual or romantic encounter between the two, but Police Chief Gary Gemme has denied this.

Here’s Worcester Magazine on the incident:

Worcester County District Attorney Joe Early has transferred an employee from Worcester Superior Court to a district court outside the city, but he is not saying why. The move is believed to be related to an alleged incident involving an assistant district attorney and a Worcester police officer in a room inside the courthouse. What exactly transpired between the two is where the details start to get fuzzy, but Police Chief Gary Gemme acknowledges there is a tape of the incident. At the same time, Gemme is shooting down rumors of a sexual encounter between the two individuals, whose identities neither the chief nor the DA revealed

“We heard the rumors and there’s a lot of innuendo and plenty of exaggeration,” Gemme tells Worcester Magazine. “There was no sexual activity, no sexual content.”

He says there is video footage of whatever happened between the DA’s employee and the officer, but says he has not seen it.

“I had a high-ranking police official review the tape,” the chief says, not naming the official. “Based on his report there was no sexual activity or content. It’s really just an exaggeration.”

Saying again there was no sexual content on the tape, Gemme was asked whether the individuals on the tape were observed kissing or in any way being physically affectionate.

“I don’t want to get into anything specific,” he says. He was also asked to confirm speculation that the two individuals on the tape were married to other people. “That’ s not a question that I would really want to address.”

Whatever occurred, Gemme says, “We’re going to treat it as a personal matter. We’re still addressing it.”

He did say based on what he has learned so far he does not anticipate discipline rising to the level of a termination or suspension. “I don’t want to pre-judge anything, because we are looking at it.”

And here’s Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson:

In an interview Tuesday, Early declined to comment about the sexual incident but confirmed that he transferred the female assistant district attorney to a suburban district court last week. She had been an assistant DA in Worcester for three years, and had reportedly submitted her name for a judgeship.

“If there’s a personnel matter that needs to be addressed, we would address it internally,” Early said. “If we have a problem we deal with it. People are held to standards and make mistakes and we deal with it.”

He added, “In this office as with life, things seem to come in cycles. It’s a roller coaster. You have your ups, you have your downs.”

Last month would perhaps be considered a down cycle. On Sept. 18, the ADA was reportedly captured on videotape in a romantic tryst with a detective sergeant in a conference room linked to Courtroom No. 20. Both are married to other people and have young children.

The incident in the conference room has been the focus of intense gossip at the courthouse and beyond for weeks. While some employees have seemed eager to engage in speculation, many others say the parties involved are well-liked and well-respected.

“We’re just hoping it goes away,” one employee said.

Still others expressed surprise that the parties would risk being caught on videotape. While the tape is reportedly in the custody of the state Trial Court, Jeff Morrow, director of security for the Trial Court, declined to discuss the incident or elaborate on the video system.

“Video surveillance is commonly used for enhanced security throughout the commonwealth,” he said.

This newspaper decided not to publish the names of the parties involved. While their behavior may be considered inappropriate or untoward, they’re consenting adults who committed no crime… [They] are highly regarded employees who may fall under the category of good people doing dumb things.

It’s not known if Police Chief Gary Gemme intends to take action against his sergeant, as neither he nor his spokesman returned phone calls this week. Nor is it clear why he would insist in another publication that “no sexual activity or content” was captured on the tape when the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

I’m going to have to disagree with the idea that this is just a “personal matter” or a just “consenting adults who committed no crime.” If a prosecutor was involved in some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with a police sergeant, the integrity of any trials these two were both involved in would be completely compromised. If this officer ever testified in a case this assistant district attorney was prosecuting, there would be an obvious conflict of interest.

An incident like this isn’t a joke. This deserves an independent investigation to determine if the relationship between these two might have prejudiced the results of any of this prosecutor’s convictions.

Oct 11 2013

Video evidence of alleged Worcester police brutality incident goes missing

Dr. Q

The Telegram & Gazette reports:

A routine arrest outside a city strip club in May has exposed a rift between the Worcester Police Department and the district attorney’s office, touched off by allegations that a key piece of evidence — a videotape — is missing.

The case has also launched an internal affairs probe into the arresting officer, Joseph Vigliotti.

Officer Vigliotti is accused by 22-year-old Nigel H. Edwards of Cranston, R.I., of using excessive force, filing a false police report and committing racial profiling. Mr. Edwards was arrested May 5 outside the Emperor’s Lounge on five charges including assault and battery on a police officer and assault. Another man was arrested in the case as well. Mr. Edwards is black; Officer Vigliotti is white.

Through his lawyer, Officer Vigliotti, a 12-year police veteran, denies any wrongdoing in the case.

Mr. Edwards agreed in September to nine months of pretrial probation to settle the charges against him — in his words, to make the charges go away. At the time, he said he accepted probation because he was concerned if his case ever went to trial, it would be his word against the police officer’s. A jury would inherently believe an officer, Mr. Edwards said — especially since the videotape evidence filmed by the club’s security cameras was missing.

“I am concerned that justice has been obstructed in this matter, and the loss of evidence was intentional,” Mr. Edwards wrote in his internal affairs complaint. “The videotape was absolute definitive proof that Officer Vigliotti used excessive force; pepper sprayed me without merit and falsely arrested me.”

In an interview, Mr. Edwards explained why he agreed to pretrial probation.

“It is my word against these two powerhouses,” Mr. Edwards said, referring to police and District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.’s office. “All I have is my word and that video of what happened, and it was lost. I feel like I was weaseled into something I didn’t really want to be into.”

Mr. Edwards’ mother, Roberta D. Powell, has concerns about Officer Vigliotti having had possession of the evidence.

“If in fact the video shows Nigel’s versions of event, and I believe it does, then he (Officer Vigliotti) has every reason to get rid of it because it implicates him,” she said.

Officer Vigliotti’s lawyer brokered the signing of a release stating that Mr. Edwards would not sue the officer or the city of Worcester. Officials said the Police Department’s administration was unaware of the release agreement. It was crafted by John K. Vigliotti, the officer’s brother and lawyer. Attorney Vigliotti’s firm represents officers through the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund.

This is an important and disturbing story. Read the entire article here.

Sep 28 2013

Worcester police officer arrested on assault and drug charges

Dr. Q

The Telegram & Gazette reports:

A Worcester police officer is being held at the Worcester County Jail after he was arrested Thursday in Southbridge in connection with a domestic assault.

Robert A. Farrar, 42, of 170 Prince Road, Southbridge, is charged with assault and battery, aggravated assault and battery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a belt) and possession of Percocet. He is being held until a dangerousness hearing is held next week.

A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf during his arraignment Friday at Dudley District Court.

According to Worcester Police Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst, Officer Farrar is a 19-year veteran of the Worcester Police Department. He has been placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy in such instances. As a result, the Worcester Police Department’s Bureau of Professional Standards is conducting an internal investigation into the matter.

Officer Farrar is being held without bail until the dangerousness hearing is held Wednesday.

I wish it was my job’s policy to give me a paid vacation if I was arrested for a violent crime.

Update (9/18/2013): Farrar is now facing new charges. The charges include four counts of rape and three counts of assault and battery.

Jul 24 2013

The high cost of obtaining police misconduct records in Massachusetts

Dr. Q

The Telegram & Gazette, a Worcester-based newspaper, recently published an article about a state trooper with a history of receiving citizen complaints because of his behavior (see here for more details). The Telegram & Gazette was able to access the complaint records because of the Massachusetts Public Records Law, a statute that allows anyone to request copies of all kinds of records from local and state government agencies.

When you hear the term “public records,” you might imagine that these documents are freely accessible to any members of the public who request them. In reality, getting copies of public records often carries enormous costs.

In theory, the government must make a good faith attempt to respond to public records requests within 10 days and the fees they charge must be reasonable. In practice, 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 before they can be copied, and even flat out ignoring requests as The Boston Globe reported in a 2009 article titled “High costs can make open records seem closed.” There are no consequences for failing to comply with the public records law. A government employee who breaks this law cannot be fined or charged with a crime.

Police departments typically justify fees by pointing out that they must redact certain information from records. There are certain types of information that police are allowed or required to redact before they can release records to the public. For instance, if police released a complaint, they might have to redact identifying information about the complainant to protect his or her privacy. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with redacting certain information, but it becomes a problem when it makes fees so high that the cost of obtaining records is too much for many people to afford.

I asked Thomas Caywood, the author of the Telegram & Gazette story, how much the newspaper was charged for the complaint records. He told me that the Telegram “paid $800 up front based on [the] state police estimate, but [the] actual cost was a couple of hundred less.” The state police eventually refunded the difference, but that means the paper was still charged $600 for the records. The Telegram obtained about 60 pages of documents, so the paper was charged about $10 per page.

In 2008, the Telegram & Gazette became involved in a lengthy public records dispute with the Worcester Police Department. After the Telegram published an article about Worcester police officer Mark Rojas shooting a family’s pet dog to death, the paper began receiving numerous letters from readers who said they had also been abused by the officer. In April, 2008, the Telegram & Gazette sent the police a public records request for Rojas’s entire internal affairs file.

The police department charged the paper $1,500, money which it quickly accepted, but it did not release the more than 1,500 pages of documents until December. When the documents were released, they were heavily redacted to the point that “776 pages contained little or no information,” according to the Telegram & Gazette. In one case, the police had literally blacked out an entire page.

To get access to the remaining 700+ pages of Rojas’s internal affairs file, the Telegram & Gazette was forced to sue the police department. Though these documents are public records, Worcester bureaucrats spent taxpayer money to defend the city against the lawsuit and keep them secret. A judge ultimately ruled that their reasons for withholding the information were “clearly without merit.” It took more than two years from the initial public records request before the Telegram & Gazette was finally able to get copies of the remaining pages.

Those pages contained some of the most disturbing information about Officer Rojas which might explain why the Worcester Police Department was so desperate to conceal them from the public (read more about this story here).

I also have some experience requesting police misconduct information. In 2011, I was contacted by a student at UMass Lowell who had been threatened by a campus police officer for video-recording the police as they broke up a fight. The officer approached the student and yelled at him to “Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you!” When I brought the incident to the attention of the campus police chief, he launched an investigation that eventually resulted in the officer being disciplined.

I made a public records request to get a copy of the report of the investigation. I was told that I would have to pay $245 dollars in fees for what I was told was a 20-page report (it was actually 19 pages) — more than $10 per page. I was unable to spare the money, so I asked readers of my site to donate it to me. Three generous individuals stepped up the the plate and I was able to get the report released, scan it, and post it on my website. If they hadn’t, the only copy of the report would probably be sitting in a filing cabinet in the HR department of UMass Lowell and never seen by the public.

I have had other negative experiences trying to obtain police records. In one case, I tried to obtain some documents from the Fitchburg Police Department. After my first request was completely ignored, I sent a second letter on July 25, 2011. That time, I received a three sentence boilerplate letter signed by Officer Brian Rouleau, the head of the Records Department. The letter claimed that a “severe shortage in staff” prevented the department from considering my request right away, but that it would be looked into at an unspecified time in the future.

I gave the police the benefit of the doubt and waited a reasonable amount of time in the hope that they would send a follow-up letter that answered my request. After giving the police more than a month, I called the Records Division on September, 5, but could not reach Officer Rouleau, so I left a message on his voicemail asking him to call back. He returned my call the following day and told me that my request would be looked over by Captain Linda Swears, but that Captain Swears was on vacation and would not be able to respond to my request until September 12. Captain Swears never called me.

I called Officer Rouleau back on September 13. When I told him that Swears never contacted me, he told me that he would look into the request himself. Officer Rouleau called me back later that day and told me that he found the documents I was seeking and spoke with City Attorney Mike Ciota about my request. Ciota reportedly told Rouleau that the documents I was seeking fell under a C.O.R.I. exemption and could not be released. Two days later, I received a second letter which reiterated what Officer Rouleau told me over the phone.

In the age of the internet, this is simply inexcusable. We should not have to send requests or pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees to potentially hostile police departments in order to access their records, especially those dealing with misconduct. Our tax dollars already pay for the creation and maintenance of these records. We should not have to pay twice. Police departments should be required to post this information to the internet in easily navigable databases in a timely manner and there should be serious consequences for departments that do not comply.

The government is funded with the public’s tax dollars, so it must be as transparent to the public as possible so that we may hold it accountable. This is especially true when it comes to the police, one of the most extraordinarily powerful institutions in our society. The police can search and seize our property, issue fines, use force (including deadly force), and lock people in jail. Their courtroom testimony can turn people into felons, strip them of many of their basic rights, and send them to prison. They have special legal privileges that make it harder to convict them of crimes or sue them.

Police are simply too powerful to be allowed to operate in the dark. They should not be allowed to hide their records behind a wall of fees, delays, and other impediments.