Municipal officials garishly flaunt Mass public records law
For a year and a half, the Quincy Police Department has cited dubious and flat-out false reasons to deny a resident access to a police report she made about her neighbor urinating in public. In spite of the police department’s best efforts to block the request, however, we obtained a copy through unofficial means and are publishing it.
It’s impossible to say why Quincy police don’t want the report released, but it’s clear that the QPD brass didn’t want Dianne Kane-McGunigle to have the document. It may have to do with the fact that the public urinator is a local celebrity (who was not charged with a crime), and the police didn’t want to be seen as giving a celebrity special treatment.
Another possibility is sheer vindictiveness: Kane-McGunigle’s husband, former Quincy police officer Joseph McGunigle, was suing the department for wrongful termination at the time the report was made (the lawsuit has since been dismissed, but is being appealed). Police Chief Paul Keenan and Captain John Dougan, both of whom were involved in denying the report’s release, were named as defendants in McGunigle’s lawsuit.
A third possibility is that the department was embarrassed by the report, which shows that one of its sergeants has a poor grasp of both the First Amendment and state law. When Kane-McGunigle reported the incident on a public beach across the street from her home on September 16, 2014, she offered to provide the cops with a video that she shot of the incident. According to Kane-McGunigle, Sergeant James McNeil responded to her report by incorrectly telling her that video recording someone in public is illegal, while also dismissing the behavior by saying, “If you gotta go you gotta go.”
Her account is confirmed by McNeil’s report, which states, “After advising McGunigle of the legality of videotaping taping [sic] an unsuspecting individual I interviewed her more indeptly [sic] … After hearing McGunigle’s version of events [I] again advis[ed] her against videotaping individuals.” The report makes it pretty clear that in addition to being a poor writer, McNeil did not understand state law, which only criminalizes surreptitious audio recording of conversations. Kane-McGunigle’s video was not made secretively and does not contain audio.
McNeil spoke to the urinator, who copped to doing the deed, but said that his age and an unspecified medical condition necessitated not waiting to use a toilet. McNeil instructed him not to do it again, but decided that no crime had been committed because there was “no illicit intent.” The incident was filed as noncriminal the next day, according to the incident report.
On September 25, 2014, Kane-McGunigle attempted to get a copy of the report she’d filed. Her attempt led to Captain Anthony DiBona leaving her a voicemail the next day, denying her a copy of the document. “I checked into it, and they’re not releasing this report because it’s under investigation technically, and anything that has any sexual innuendos we generally don’t—actually never—release anyway,” he said.
But the report didn’t contain any “sexual innuendos” (which isn’t even a legally valid reason for withholding a public record). And the incident wasn’t under investigation either.
After Kane-McGunigle reached out to us, we tried to get a copy of the report too, but the Quincy police got inventive. They claimed that releasing the report to us would confirm that Kane-McGunigle was the complainant, and that they could not identify any witnesses. They also claimed that the report contained medical information in it. These claims led to some mind-numbingly stupid rulings by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office, which upheld the department’s decision—twice. Later, the police department cited those rulings to again deny Kane-McGunigle a copy of the report, bizarrely claiming they could not identify her to herself. The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office inexplicably agreed.
As it turns out, the report shows that Captain DiBona was not accurate about the ongoing investigation, while Captain Dougan at least incorrectly claimed that there was medical information in the report. They repeated these falsehoods to Kane-McGunigle, us, the Boston Globe, and to Galvin’s office. Further, it’s obvious that they have been denying Kane-McGunigle a copy under completely false pretense. Clearly they are not actually worried that providing her with a copy of the report will undermine her willingness to cooperate with them because she expressly told DiBona that it wouldn’t in person, on video.
On February 24, 2016, after a year and a half of trying to obtain an official copy of the report, we returned to the Quincy Police Station to sort out the matter. We spoke with Captain Dougan briefly, but he refused to answer our questions, directing us to the secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. We then asked to meet with Chief Paul Keenan, and Sergeant David Pacino said that no one in the department would speak to us. We asked to report an officer for dishonesty, and to report a criminal violation of the public records law. Pacino said he was unsure of how we could do that and again told us no one in the department would speak to us, including internal affairs.
The Massachusetts attorney general’s office recently suggested we seek criminal complaints against violators of the records law ourselves, and sent us a link describing how to do so. The first step is to obtain a blank police report from the town where the violation occurred, so we asked Pacino to provide us with one. He claimed that the department didn’t have any. We also asked for a citizen complaint form. Pacino stole a quick glance towards the forms but then asked if we had our own paper that we could write our complaint on. We pressed the matter so Pacino offered to “check” for a citizen complaint form—which he found immediately, right in the direction he had glanced.
In a letter to the Boston Globe published late last year, Easton Town Administrator David Colton argued that punishment won’t stop public officials from violating the public records law. “[S]tricter rules and fines won’t solve the problem. The vast majority of public officials want to do the right thing, but a lack of knowledge and resources are barriers,” he wrote. Instead, Colton said the state should provide more training, technical assistance, and other help to municipal officials.
But this incident shows that at least some agencies are willing to use false pretenses and incredibly asinine arguments just to avoid printing out a few pages of a report about a minor spat between two neighbors. “It makes you wonder how many times they deny public records under false reasons,” Kane-McGunigle said.
Indeed. Imagine if there was something they really wanted to cover up
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Broken Records” is a biweekly column produced in partnership between the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, DigBoston, and the Bay State Examiner. Follow BINJ on Twitter @BINJreports for upcoming installments of Maya and Andrew’s ongoing reporting on public information.