Examiner releases Springfield Police Department's use of force policies

springfield_policeThe Bay State Examiner is releasing the Springfield Police Department's use of force policy documents in an effort to bring more transparency to these policies. We obtained the documents in March in response to a public records request. I have not had time to review the documents because I've been busy with other projects, so I have no commentary to offer about them, but I wanted to make them public now rather than sitting on them any longer.

The one thing I did want to talk about was the process I went through to obtain these documents.

I sent my first records request for use of force policies to the Springfield Police Department by mail on December 19, 2013.

State law mandates that all government agencies must comply with public records requests within 10 days of receiving them, but I never received a response of any kind.

I sent a second, identical copy of the request on January 6, 2014. Included with the second copy was a letter explaining that the police had failed to respond to my previous request within the 10 days required by law. In addition to mailing a second copy of my request, I sent a copy to the email address listed on the Springfield Police Department's website. I never received a response to the letter or email.

I sent follow-up emails on January 17 and February 12. I never got responses to these emails either.

It seemed that my records requests were going to a black hole, so I finally sent a letter of appeal to the Supervisor of Records, the state agency that is responsible for oversight of the public records law.

After my case was opened late in February, I finally received an email from E. Rhett Towles, Associate City Solicitor for Springfield, claiming that the basic policy documents I was requesting copies of were not public records.

"The disclosure of these documents endangers the safety of the law enforcement personnel as well as the effectiveness of law enforcement efforts such that disclosure would not be in the public interest," he wrote.

I told him this was "highly unusual" and pointed out that the Boston Police Department has posted these policies on the City of Boston's website for anyone to see (see here, here, and here) and that the Massachusetts State Police provided their policies to me upon request (see here and here). I also pointed out that in 2012, Springfield city government hosted free educational events for the public to teach them about Springfield police use of force policies.

Towles explained in his response that he had not reviewed any of the documents I requested, but that he would do so and get back to me.

"I am generally of the nature that everything should be public record unless public safety is at issue. From what I understand about the contents of those documents based on conversations I have had with SPD, I believe that they may in fact still qualify under this exemption based on SPD’s continuing operations. That being said, I will personally review the documents to verify whether they should be exempt," he wrote.

I also asked why it took so long for me to get a response to my request and why I had to make an appeal to the Supervisor of Records.

"In regards to the tardiness of the response, I have no explanation other than the request did not come to my attention until the Supervisor of Public Records contacted the City regarding your complaint," he wrote.

Even though I contacted the Springfield Police Department five separate times, they never forwarded my records request to the appropriate person so that it could be fulfilled, causing a process that should have taken days to take months.

Towles' email continued, and he provided a bit of insight into how public records requests are being dealt with in Springfield:

Unfortunately, some departments in the City are slower to respond than they should be, which is why my department is in the process of centralizing public records requests so that one person, currently myself, will be responsible for all public records requests the City receives. In fact, as we speak, the City is working on making more of its data publicly available through the City’s website. In the last 2 years alone, in addition to the publishing of all property records cards for properties within the City of Springfield, we have also published an “open checkbook,” where anybody with internet access can view any and all purchases and expenditures by the City, including payroll. A few short weeks ago, the Treasurer’s office was able to setup an automated system that constantly updates the Unclaimed Property the City has, and we are continually working to make more public in this manner.   We have made great strides in this endeavor, but as you see, there are still a few departments which are behind in the process. Due to the nature of records SPD keeps, it is unlikely that their records will make it to the public online database, but in the not so distant future, we might be able to publish certain frequently requested documents that will alleviate some of the requests the City receives as well as allow the public more access in the name of governmental transparency.   In the meantime, please send any records requests to me personally, as my job is to coordinate the public records process for the City. In the near future, we will be launching a new email option that will be accessible by several people in my department to ensure that there are no undue delays in response due to the timely responses required by law.

Towles ultimately told me that the police department's various use of force policy documents were public records. He also provided me with a report on the police department's Community Police Hearing Board and a 2007 report about "Enhancing Community Review of the Springfield Police Department."

I received the documents at some point after March 10 (the date postmarked on the envelope), which is 81 days after I sent the request.

If you have any records requests for the Springfield Police Department, I suggest emailing Towles at ETowles@springfieldcityhall.com instead of sending them to the police department, since they'll apparently just get ignored.

You can check out all the policy documents and reports below:

Springfield charged $60.60. in fees for these records. Please consider donating to The Bay State Examiner so we can continue bringing you public records and original reporting.