After mishandling a public records request, the Abington Police Department did something unusual – they apologized.
Massachusetts has a reputation for having one of the weakest, most poorly enforced Freedom of Information laws in the country, something anyone who frequently makes public records requests in the Commonwealth can tell you is well deserved.
It's all too common for government agencies to ignore the timeliness requirement of the law, wrongfully deny the release of records, and otherwise violate the letter and spirit of the law. On the other hand, it's rare for government agencies to apologize when they're caught or to take steps to ensure it won't happen again.
But that's exactly what the Abington police did after being told by the Supervisor of Records, the state official responsible for oversight of the public records law, that they failed to meet their burden under the law with respect to one of our records requests.
We requested records related to the 1998 traffic stop of Michael Hyde, which led to an important legal precedent in Massachusetts regarding the right to record police officers. We also requested training and policy documents related to the right to record police.
The department did not send a response until 21 days after the request was filed even though the public records law requires compliance within 10 days.
The department's response denied the request, but provided very little explanation. Their records custodian JoAnn Gillis simply provided a form with check boxes on it and marked off two boxes with an "x." One of the marked off boxes was labeled "Massachusetts General Law Exemption B & F," referring to the "personnel" and "investigatory" exemptions to the public records law. The second box was labeled "Other" and was filled in with "Internal Affairs records from 1998 – Not available."
The public records law requires government agencies to explain why an exemption applies to a record in question, which the Supervisor of Records said the department failed to do.
The supervisor ordered the department to provide a new response within 10 days and to provide training on the law to its employees.
Three days after the supervisor's order was issued, Gillis provided the records related to Michael Hyde that she initially claimed weren't available at no charge. She also stated that the department did not have any relevant policy or training documents.
After I reached out to the department for an explanation about the initial handling of our request, Deputy Chief Christopher J. Cutter provided his cellphone number and encouraged me to call him even though it was his weekend off. I didn't get a chance to call at that point, but I received the following email on Monday:
On behalf of Chief [David G.] Majenski and myself we apologize for the actions of our records clerk Mrs. Gillis. She is charged with the responsibility to handle all our requests for public records and usually she does this with no issues, however in your case she failed to properly follow the training she has been provided.
Upon seeing the letter from the Supervisor of Public Records both the Chief and I were taken aback. I immediately began to look into your specific case and discussed it with our clerk Thursday afternoon. Prior to this notice from the Supervisor, Mrs. Gillis never choose to ask the Chief or I if we had an IA file and I can't answer as to why she failed to provide you with more details in regards to the exemptions she is quoted as pertaining to your additional requests. This would all be contrary to her training and contrary to our practice.
There is also no excuse as to why she took so long to respond back to your request. Again, this is contrary to her training and contrary to what the Chief expects of his employees.
When Chief Majenski came into work Friday morning he immediately reviewed the circumstances around your request and informed Mrs. Gillis that should she perform in this way in the future she will be subject to termination. As well the Chief has instituted a new procedure with her that when she denies any public records request, that I am provided with a copy of that denial packet for a secondary review. I also have scheduled mandatory re-training to be conducted by the Commonwealth for her, the Chief's administrative assistant, a part-time records clerk and myself for later this month.
In closing we extend our apologies for our department's failure to properly respond to your request and I apologize for your inconvenience our oversight has caused you. Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention as it provides us with the opportunity to make sure this doesn't happen again.
In a follow-up phone conversation, Cutter addressed the issue of the form letter that Gillis used to deny the request.
Cutter said he had "no problem" with using a form letter, but said it should include a "free-flowing narrative section so you can explain why you're giving the exemption." He also said he would look into the issue in more detail soon.
The experience does not change the need for public records reform here in Massachusetts, but it's still encouraging to see that some public officials take the law seriously.