After nearly three months, the Fall River Police Department and Mayor's Office have failed to provide The Bay State Examiner with public records related to the case of George Thompson, the Fall River man who was arrested earlier this year for recording a police officer with his iPhone. Thompson was shoved to the ground and arrested by Fall River Police Officer Thomas Barboza in January as he stood on his porch recording the officer with his phone. Thompson said he began recording Barboza because he was talking loudly on his cell phone and swearing while working a detail. Thompson was charged with wiretapping and resisting arrest.
After the arrest, Thompson’s phone was wiped while in police custody. In a report, two Fall River police detectives blamed Thompson, saying that he must have reset it using a cloud service, an allegation which Thompson vehemently denied.
The charges against Thompson were dropped on April 11, but the police refused to return his phone so that Ken Bell & Associates, a private company hired by the police department, could examine it and attempt to determine how it was wiped. The Ken Bell report, which was published in June, said that a police employee was responsible for wiping the phone.
On April 17, shortly after Thompson's charges had been dropped, the Examiner mailed out requests for public records to both the police department and mayor's office. We still have not received adequate responses to either request. Under Massachusetts state law, government agencies are obligated to comply with records requests within 10 days.
Police claim records do not exist
The request to the police department asked for "all records related to Ken Bell & Associates," the company hired to examine Thompson's phone.
The department initially failed to respond to the request entirely. After an appeal was made to the Supervisor of Records, the state agency responsible for oversight of the public records law, the police finally sent a response. The response was dated June 5, about a month and a half after the request was mailed out.
The response claimed that none of the documents exist. "I have received your request for information pertaining to the Fall River Police Departments [sic] interaction with Ken Bell and Associates. The Fall River Police Department does not have any of the information requested," wrote Captain Joseph Cabral.
The response is clearly not accurate. We are aware of several documents related to Ken Bell & Associates that the police possess. These include a press release about the decision to hire the company, a press release stating that the company had finished a report for the police department, and the report itself. We have been provided these documents by third parties who obtained them directly from the police department.
Beyond the documents that have already been made public, we believe the police department possesses other relevant records that it has failed to tell us about.
Ken Bell confirmed during a telephone interview that he has never exchanged any mail or email with the Fall River Police Department. Bell said all his business with the police department has been handled by phone or in person. He also said he has never entered into a contract with the department. Nevertheless, the police department must, at the very least, have documents describing how much money it has paid to Ken Bell & Associates.
We have asked the Supervisor of Records to re-open our case due to the police department's failure to provide us with the records we requested. We have also sent a letter to Fall River Police Chief Daniel Racine about his department's failure to turn over its records.
In May, Maya of The Bay State Examiner attempted to make a second public records request verbally at the Fall River police station, but the officers present refused to accept it and told her she had to make the request in writing despite the fact that state law requires them to comply with verbal requests. We have asked the police chief for these documents and several additional records in the letter we sent to him. We have also asked him to train his employees that they must accept verbal records requests.
At the time the first records request to the police department was mailed, the website for Ken Bell & Associates had little information about the company and no contact information (a phone number and email address have since been added).
Carlos Miller of Photography is Not a Crime (PINAC) was able to determine from publicly-available documents that Ken Bell went to the same college as Police Chief Daniel Racine, leading Miller to speculate that the two may be college friends, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Bell, a former Rhode Island state police officer, said that he did not know Racine prior to being hired by the police to examine Thompson's phone.
"I did another case for a police department up in that area and was referred to the [Fall River police] chief from that other police chief," he said.
Bell said the reason his contact information wasn't online when the Fall River police hired him was that the site was unfinished.
"That was under construction at the time," Bell explained. "I get a lot of work through word-of-mouth, so I put the website up just to kinda be a business card."
Bell said he was disappointed by the reports suggesting he may have had a prior relationship with the police chief.
Bell said that even though his report on George Thompson's phone has been completed, he has an ongoing relationship with the police department.
"I am retained by the Fall River Police Department and there's an ongoing investigation," he said.
Mayor's office ignores records request entirely
While the Fall River Police Department has claimed that it does not have any of the records we requested, the Fall River Mayor's Office still has yet to provide a reason for its failure to comply with the request. The request asked for any communications by the mayor’s office about George Thompson.
The only response we have received so far was an acknowledgement letter, postmarked April 24, from Melissa da Silveira, a paralegal for the Fall River Office of the Corporation Counsel.
“[T]his correspondence serves as notification of our offer to provide documents related to Mr. George Thompson,” da Silveira wrote. “Please be advised that due to the voluminous nature of the request, the custodian will fulfill it as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay.”
We never received a follow-up to this letter, so we appealed it to the Supervisor of Records. The appeal was closed on June 9, but we still have not heard back from the Office of the Corporation Counsel since then even though more than a month has passed.
We have asked the Supervisor of Records to re-open our case due to the Office of the Corporation Counsel's continued failure to comply with our records request in a timely manner.
We have also sent a letter to Fall River Mayor William Flanagan, asking him to take responsibility for the situation and to take action to make sure his office complies with the public records law in the future.
George Thompson had previously paid Flanagan a surprise visit the day his charges were dropped, asking the mayor to open an independent investigation into the Fall River Police Department to determine who tampered with his phone.
Flanagan, who is the police chief’s supervisor, refused to open an investigation and said that it was the job of the police chief to police his own department. He said he supported the way Racine was handling Thompson’s case even though had no idea what the facts of the case were.
Racine, whom the mayor said he had "full confidence" in, has not taken any action against the officer who wiped Thompson's phone despite telling WPRI back in March, "If a Fall River police officer erased that video, he’s fired." In fact, the police department has yet to even release the name of the officer who was responsible.
Racine has also failed to take action against Thomas Barboza, the officer who arrested Thompson. Thompson filed a complaint after he was arrested and Barboza was punished with a one-day suspension and prohibited from working details for 15 days because he was talking on the phone and swearing when he was supposed to be working, however, he still has not been punished for the arrest.
Racine previously told WPRI that he supported Barboza’s decision to arrest Thompson. Racine has still never publicly admitted that the arrest was wrongful.