Western Mass city loses police records, DA keeps failure secret
On July 1, 2015, the Pittsfield Police Department suffered a hard drive failure that would ultimately destroy an unknown—because they have refused to tell us—amount of records and evidence. Seemingly no one outside of the department would have ever known about this if we hadn’t found out by random chance.
As far as we are able to tell, the department, and later the Berkshire District Attorney’s office, did not tell anyone when they discovered the evidence was lost. The district attorney’s failure to notify anyone is strange because, one would imagine, defense attorneys might want to know if potentially exculpatory evidence about their clients has gone missing.
We only learned about the hard drive crash after making a records request to the Pittsfield police following what seemed like a spectacularly stupid arrest. On June 25, officers Dale Eason and Jennifer Brueckmann were dispatched to respond to a person outside with a baseball bat. The ensuing events were, according to an internal email by Patrol Captain David Granger, “something that could tarnish the reputation of the department for years.”
Eason and Brueckmann were dispatched to the home of 88-year-old Phyllis Stankiewicz by mistake. The dispatcher gave them the wrong address which, of course, meant there wasn’t anyone outside with a bat or any kind of disturbance at all. According to Brueckmann’s report, the officers were even told by neighbors that there had not been any disturbance at Stankiewicz’s home. But the lack any reason for their presence would not deter these two officers.
Depending on which of the reports you believe, Eason and Brueckmann either knocked on Stankiewicz’s door or yelled into her home through her open door. Either way, a knife-bearing Stankiewicz responded, told the police there was no crime at her home, and told them to leave. But the officers ignored her request.
In her report, Brueckmann described a terrifying scene as Stankiewicz, who was older than the Great Depression, approached her: “The knife was at waist level, sticking forward toward my stomach. It is a pairing knife with a black handle … She continued at me and was just about sticking it in to my stomach.” Or, in Eason’s version, which will never make it to the silver screen: “[T]he defendant, Phyllis Stankiewicz, came to the door with a knife in her hands … Officer Brueckmann immediately removed the knife from Ms. Stankiewicz’s hand.” Neither report mentions that the knife was the size of a pen, with a blade about as long as a pencap.
Having taken Stankiewicz’s tiny kitchen knife, the officers imprisoned her in her home for reasons they failed to specify in their reports. They blocked her as she tried to leave and got into a shoving match with the elderly woman, warning her not to touch them. Finally, Stankiewicz slapped Eason in the face. According to Eason’s report, he and Brueckmann then tried to arrest Stankiewicz, but she “resisted and had to be placed on the ground.” After taking Stankiewicz back to the station, the police photographed an abrasion on her right arm.
On June 29, we made a records request for the arrest reports, booking video of Stankiewicz, police ID card photos of Eason and Brueckmann, and all correspondence related to the arrest. Two days later, according to internal emails, investigator John Bassi said he began to have “issues” with playing back the department’s booking videos while trying to make copies for the DA’s office. On July 9, the department replaced the hard drive the videos were stored on after it failed completely. The next day, the Pittsfield police turned over the arrest reports and email correspondence and offered to produce the now-nonexistent video for a fee of $25. We sent them a check in late July.
The emails they turned over show that after fretting about the damage to the department’s reputation and asking if they should drop the charges, Captain Granger told Chief Michael Wynn that no one else in the department would have behaved as stupidly as Eason and Brueckmann: “I believe if we sent any other combination of officers from this department to the call it would NOT have ended in an arrest.”
Meanwhile, the department never cashed our check. (They also never told us or offered to return our money.) When the records hadn’t shown up by mid-September, we tried to contact the department by email, but they didn’t respond. We then left several voicemails. After a week of attempts, and after we released videos shaming the department for not picking up its phone and for trying to charge an unlawful $5 fee to process records requests, they turned over Eason and Brueckmann’s photos and the department’s use of force policy, but not the booking video. Captain John Mullin explained that the video was “not available due to a hard drive crash,” and said the department would return our check.
Our first instinct was disbelief. We thought the department was so afraid of having its reputation “tarnished” (to quote Granger) that it deleted the video. We figured that if the department had actually lost evidence, the revelation would have made the local news. We put in a tongue-in-cheek request for all the records related to the hard drive failure and tried to interview Mullin and Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless, whose cases would have been affected by the lost evidence. We thought this would embarrass Mullin into admitting that the only thing lost was the video. We were wrong.
Mullin would not answer any questions about the crash or who was notified. When we contacted the DA’s office, spokesman Fred Lantz also refused to tell us if the DA had been informed. Soon, the Pittsfield police turned over several emails showing there had indeed been a hard drive failure, but that the department had no record of notifying any outside parties. In one email, William King, a police investigator, said that he intended to tell the DA’s office about the crash, but there are no records of him doing this.
As far as we can tell, we were the first people outside of the department to learn of the hard drive crash, which means our phone call to Lantz was the first time the DA’s office was told that potential evidence had been destroyed; if the DA’s office was notified earlier, there is no record of it. The loss of potential evidence ought to have been revealed to any defense attorney whose client was affected (or potentially affected), but since the DA’s office didn’t know, the notifications were not made.
We made a follow-up request to the DA’s office in December, and found that the only correspondence it had related to the hard drive failure was email between county attorneys and the Pittsfield police (in which they exclusively addressed our records request). The emails showed that DA Capeless was made personally aware of the hard drive crash as early as September.
Months after learning about the hard drive failure, the DA’s office still has not told anyone, including defense attorneys, about the loss—and no one from the police department or DA’s office will speak with us about it.
We asked Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office, which oversees the public records law, for any records of the Pittsfield police notifying them of the lost evidence. There were none. We asked Galvin’s office three simple follow-up questions: (1) What is an agency that loses records supposed to do? (2) What are the consequences for an agency that fails to maintain its records and/or fails to notify anyone about the loss/destruction of records? And (3) what actions are Galvin’s office taking with regards to Pittsfield’s hard drive crash? Instead of answering our questions, Galvin’s office replied, “Our office has spoken with the Pittsfield Police and we intend to discuss this issue with them to determine what happened.”
The records we’ve received so far do not show the full extent of what the Pittsfield police lost or how many cases were affected, but they do make it clear that both the department and DA’s office failed to notify anyone, potentially jeopardizing the right to a fair trial for an unknown number of people. Because neither agency will talk with us, we reached out to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office to ask what it would do about the issue. The AGO did not respond either.
“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.