The Massachusetts public records law is unenforced and criminals like Sutton Police Chief Dennis Towle know it. The ongoing failure to enforce the law deprives the public of their right to know what the government is doing, and in Sutton, this includes an illegal ticket quota run by Towle.
Ticket quotas are well-established as being illegal in Massachusetts. A 2005 state appeals court ruling found that quotas remove police officers’ lawfully-protected right to use their own discretion when deciding whether to issue traffic citations
Towle mandated that each Sutton police officer was responsible for writing 20 traffic citations every month. This quota came to light after Towle took administrative action against Officer Christopher Green, who later filed a lawsuit.
Brian Burke, Green’s lawyer, provided us with a copy of the first page of a signed letter from Towle dated May 22, 2013. In the letter, Towle explained that he was issuing a “written warning” to Green for failing to meet issue 20 tickets in a month. Burke said he would not provide the rest of the letter because it “goes beyond the ticket quota and discuss [sic] details” that Green does not want made public.
I sent Towle a request on December 29 for records related to the ticket quota. The records law gives records custodians 10 days to respond to requests, but almost a month and a half later, he still hasn’t turned over the records. This is a criminal violation of the records law and is punishable by a fine and/or up to a year in jail, so I decided to attempt to press charges.
On January 15, I went to the Sutton Police Station and spoke with Officer Bryan Lefebvre. But when I explained the crime and presented the evidence—including a copy of the law—Lefebvre refused to take a report.
“If you are alleging anyone in the department committed any violation, I wouldn't investigate it myself just because it's a conflict of interest,” Lefebvre explained. “If you are claiming that someone within the department committed the violation, it would be inappropriate for us to investigate our own people because you could make all sorts of allegations of cover-ups or whatever it may be.”
Lefebvre makes a valid point: Police departments really do have a conflict of interest when investigating their own employees. I fully agree that “internal affairs” investigations aren’t impartial and can lead to departments sweeping misdeeds under the rug. But that doesn't mean that police departments are somehow absolved from taking reports of criminal activity. It would make more sense for departments to take reports, then turn them over to an independent agency for investigation.
Two hours after I left the police department, I received an email from Towle. The email explained that the records request had been sent to Lenny Keston, a private attorney hired by the town.
Keston told me that because of Green’s lawsuit against the town, he was “reviewing [the records] to make sure the response is proper.” That was January 11, and I haven’t heard anything from him since. He’s left me wondering whether he’s trying to cover up embarrassing information or just incompetent.
I asked Towle to comment on the stated policy that the department refuses to take a reports related to their staff. I also asked Lefebvre about his decision to inform Towle that I had attempted to press charges against him. Neither responded.
After refusing to take my report, Lefebvre suggested I try to report the crime to the attorney general’s office. Doing so seems like common sense since the AGO is tasked with enforcing the records law, but Attorney General Maura Healey refuses to take criminal complaints. At Lefebvre’s suggestion, I did reach out to the AGO and informed them that the police has referred the issue to them. They never responded.
It’s troubling that the records law isn’t followed, more troubling that the Sutton police refuse to take reports of criminal activity if it’s one of their staff members, and more troubling still that Healey refuses to enforce the law. Healey’s failure to uphold the law allows for institutional rot to go unchecked, as Towle and the Sutton police demonstrated. Her failure deprives the public of their right to know when governmental actors are out of line.