After the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, the authority on the Massachusetts public records law, ordered the Fall River Police Department to comply with a public records request from The Bay State Examiner, the police department has simply refused to follow the law.
On December 5, 2014, the secretary's office ordered the police to revise the fee estimate for a public records request. The request was related to a case from last year during which Fall River resident George Thompson was attacked and wrongfully arrested for recording a police officer after he caught the officer talking on his phone and profusely swearing while he was supposed to be working a detail. The police said they would charge $1 per page for records, but the law generally only allows government agencies 20 cents per page for photocopies and 50 cents per page for computer printouts. The police were told to provide the revised fee estimate within 10 days.
The secretary's office also ordered the police to begin accepting verbal records requests after an incident during which a reporter for the Examiner repeatedly asked multiple members of the police department for copies of public records in person, but was told she had to make her records request in writing.
The secretary's office also ordered the police to undergo training on the public records law.
In the more than a month since the secretary's office issued its order, the Fall River police have not updated their policies or provided us with a revised fee estimate. Instead of contacting The Bay State Examiner, Fall River Police Chief Daniel Racine sent a statement to a reporter from a different news organization – Brian Fraga of The Herald News – that indicated he has no intention of following the supervisor's order.
According to Racine's statement, which was provided to us by Fraga:
Relative to their suggestion that the FRPD should avail ourselves to more public records training; the FRPD has twice scheduled training on public records request from the PRO and the training sessions were canceled by the Public Information Supervisor on both occasions. In fact, the FRPD invited the area suburban law enforcement agencies to attend the training sessions at the FRPD training room, this to ensure all area law enforcement the opportunity for public records training.
It should be noted the FRPD had a training session several years ago on public records request; this training was also proactively requested by the FRPD. Obviously, the Public Records Supervisor was not properly informed prior to writing his decision relative to training in the area of public records request.
Further, the FRPD disputes their opinion relative to fees and the notification process to the requesting party. The arbiter in these matters is the superior court.
If the secretary's office has cancelled training sessions on the public records law in the past, that's troubling but in no way negates the need for more training by the Fall River police. Likewise, the Fall River police may have been trained several years ago, but that also does not negate the need for more training. If the Fall River police refuse to take verbal requests for records from the public and are incapable of properly assessing fees, then they need more training regardless of how well-trained they feel.
In regards to Racine's refusal to revise the fee estimate for our records request, we have sent a letter to the secretary's office asking that the case be turned over to the attorney general's office, which has more power to enforce the law.
"If Racine believes this matter should be resolved in court, he should be obliged. If Racine continues to refuse to comply with the public records law, this case should be referred to the attorney general's office so that he can face civil action or criminal charges," the letter reads.
In his statement, Racine claimed that information about the George Thompson case "was proactively released." While some information about the case has been already released, the information we are seeking has not.
When George Thompson was arrested, his phone's memory was wiped by a police officer. The police department initially tried to blame Thompson, saying he must have reset it using a cloud service, but later hired private company to examine the phone. The company determined that a police officer wiped the phone by repeatedly entering incorrect passwords. The police department has never said who this police officer is. The department has also never said how much taxpayer money was spent on the private company's investigation.
After telling the public that a police officer wiped the phone, Racine said in a press release that he was limiting comments about the case due to concerns of a possible lawsuit from Thompson, which has since been filed. Since Racine is not transparent enough to tell the public who wiped Thompson's phone, how much the private contractor was paid, and other information about the case, we hoped these facts would be revealed by the records we requested from the police.
Racine also said the following in his statement:
There is a saying: " one cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. " I decidedly cannot change what happened [when George Thompson was arrested]; however, I have imposed discipline where appropriate and I have implemented strict policy and have provided training to all sworn members of the FRPD.
The idea that Racine has "imposed discipline where appropriate" is laughable and clearly false. Thomas Barboza, the police officer who falsely arrested Thompson, has not faced any disciplinary action at all for making the arrest. Barboza received an extremely light punishment for talking on the phone and swearing while he was supposed to be working (he was given with a one day suspension and prohibited from detail work for 15 days), but the false arrest – which is a far more serious offense – has gone unpunished.
The fact that Barboza has not been punished for the false arrest is particularly ridiculous because he was trained on the right to record police years ago. A 2011 training document from the Fall River police states that "A citizen's right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers... is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment." Barboza signed off on that policy, indicating he understood it, so there can be no excuse for his arrest of Thompson or for Racine's failure to take disciplinary action of any kind against him for it.
The officer who destroyed the contents of Thompson's phone also hasn't faced any disciplinary action. Despite initially telling WPRI that "If a Fall River police officer erased that video, he’s fired," Racine imposed no disciplinary action when that turned out to be the case. When the police department finally announced that a police officer wiped the phone, Racine said in a press release that "the action was not malicious," although he did not say how he arrived at that conclusion.
Racine has shown so little interest in ensuring that there is accountability for George Thompson that he has not even publicly admitted that the arrest was wrongful or apologized for the arrest.
Given that the Fall River Police Department's leadership seems to have no interest in imposing accountability from within, we hope the attorney general will take up our public records case and begin the process of imposing accountability from the outside.