Secretary of State orders Fall River police to retrain employees on public records law

Fall River Police Chief Daniel Racine (Source: WPRI) The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office has ordered the Fall River Police Department to retrain its employees on the Massachusetts public records law, the state law that is supposed to guarantee the public access to government documents.

The order, dated December 5, comes in response to an administrative appeal filed by The Bay State Examiner with the Supervisor of Records, the division of the secretary's office that provides oversight for the public records law. The appeal was filed by the Examiner to address the police department's repeated failure to comply with records requests related to a case earlier this year in which Fall River resident George Thompson was wrongfully arrested for recording a police officer.

In one incident mentioned in the appeal, 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.

“There is no requirement in the law that requests be made in writing,” Shawn A. Williams, the attorney who serves as the Supervisor of Records, wrote. “Accordingly, the Department is advised that a records custodian is not permitted to require that requests for public records be made in writing.”

Later, the Examiner mailed a records request to the department and was sent a response in which the department attempted to charge a dollar per page in fees. The public records law generally only allows government agencies to charge 20 cents per page for photocopies and 50 cents per page for computer printouts.

Williams ordered the department to provide “a revised fee estimate to properly reflect the cost for copies of all records, revised in a manner consistent with the Public Records Law and the Regulations” within 10 days.

“The Department is hereby ordered to conduct mandatory training in the area of the Public Records Law,” Williams wrote, adding that an attorney from his office “will be available to answer questions.”