The Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office ruled yesterday that the city of Lowell must turn over copies of records related to Alyssa Brame, the young woman who died in police custody in 2013. The ruling came in response to an appeal from The Bay State Examiner that was made after the city refused to provide us with the records.
Brame was arrested by Lowell police for allegedly soliciting sex on January 12, 2013. She fell unconscious while in their custody and ultimately died of alcohol poisoning.
The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone for Brame’s death, but an internal Board of Inquiry review by the police department found that six police officers and two civilian employees violated department policies, possibly contributing to Brame’s death. Police left Brame alone in a cell for over an hour after she lost consciousness, according to the report. When she was finally checked on and found unresponsive, another 15 minutes passed before anyone called 911. The Board of Inquiry report states that the department “has had a long-standing policy of ‘At no time will an unconscious prisoner be placed into a cell. Unconscious prisoners shall be examined by trained medical individuals as soon as possible.’”
Several of the employees involved in Brame’s death were recommended for disciplinary action by Police Superintendent William Taylor. The city offered deals to the five employees facing the harshest punishment, which allowed them to accept lesser punishment instead of facing disciplinary hearings.
Lieutenant Thomas Siopes, who was in charge the night Brame died, was the only one to reject the deal offered to him, which included a demotion to patrolman and a 180-day unpaid suspension.
During Siopes' public hearing, his attorneys alleged that the police department never distributed the policy he was accused of violating and were trying to cover it up. The city denied the cover-up allegation, but offered Siopes a better deal, which he accepted. Siopes was ultimately punished with a 90-day suspension and a 9-month loss of rank to sergeant.
The Bay State Examiner's public records request asked for all records related to Siopes' disciplinary hearing as well as all communications sent and received by the city manager's office related to the hearing and Alyssa Brame.
"The City has been contacted by legal counsel representing a relative of Ms. Brame to initiate litigation proceedings. Your request in its entirety concerns documents that may be related to that pending litigation," Assistant City Solicitor Rachel M. Brown said at the time.
Brown did not specify which family member she was referring to, but we know from past communications that she was alluding to Alice Swiridowsky-Muckle, Brame's mother.
Howard Friedman, the attorney representing Swiridowsky-Muckle, said that he has sent the city a 258 demand letter, but has not yet filed a lawsuit. He said Brown was likely referring to anticipated litigation.
Brown said the city was withholding the records under the so-called "deliberative process" exemption to the public records law. This exemption only applies to records that contain recommendations on legal and policy matters found within an ongoing deliberative process, according to the public records law guide by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
The deliberative process exemption would, for example, apply to emails discussing a legal strategy for addressing a lawsuit. However, the exemption does not apply to all records that may be in some way connected to a lawsuit.
According to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, the city's Law Department failed to explain why they believe the records fall under the "deliberative process" exemption. The secretary's office ordered the city to turn over the records in 10 days. The order further states, "If the [Law] Department maintains that any portion of the responsive records are exempt from disclosure it must, within ten (10) days provide... a written explanation, with specificity, how a particular exemption applies to each record" (emphasis in original).
We have advised the city that we expect them to turn the records over in the time frame specified by the secretary's office, but have not received a response yet.