Earlier this year, Mike Beaudet, the investigative reporter for Fox 25, published a story about several Massachusetts state troopers who had received large number of complaints.
In his story, Beaudet said he obtained copies of the internal affairs files for three state troopers "after a two-year public records battle" with the state police. I wanted to know what he meant by this, so I sent him an email asking him to clarify.
In his response, Beaudet said:
The state police did not want to release any information so we appealed to the secretary of state’s office. We then battled over how much it would cost to get the records. We finally received some records, but they were heavily redacted and we are in the process of seeing what additional information can be made public.
It's interesting that the state police initially would not release any internal affairs records at all. While many government records are exempt from disclosure under the Massachusetts public records law, the 2003 case Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corporation v. Chief of Police of Worcester had already made it perfectly clear years prior that internal affairs records kept by police departments are public records.
In the ruling for that case, Judge Joseph Grasso pointed out the absurdity of the idea that internal affairs records should be kept from the public.
"The internal affairs procedure fosters the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of the police department, its employees, and its processes for investigating complaints because the department has the integrity to discipline itself. A citizenry's full and fair assessment of a police department's internal investigation of its officer's actions promotes the core value of trust between citizens and police essential to law enforcement and the protection of constitutional rights," Grasso wrote. "It would be odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny... the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence."
The case is even described in one of the public records bulletins distributed by the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office.
Thankfully, the state police seem to have learned their lesson since Mike Beaudet made his public records requests over two years ago. When I recently requested the internal affairs files for the two state troopers who were involved in the Ibragim Todashev shooting, the state police did not attempt to withhold them, although they did take longer to fulfill the request than the 10 day limit mandated by state law.