The recently revamped Massachusetts public records law is still hailed as one of the worst in the country. Agencies have ten days to respond to public records request, but some agencies, especially law enforcement agencies, have trouble abiding by the law.
Getting public records is tough in the Bay State, but it gets tougher when your requests are directed towards police agencies, which have special carveouts in the law just for them. One of the most notoriously cited exemptions by police agencies is the investigatory exemption, or exemption f.
Such was the case in a request filed by Todd Wallack of the Boston Globe, who appealed the Boston Police Department’s rejection to his request for a picture of an officer and detective.
BPD couldn’t explain exactly how this exemption applied to the records in question. And so, the Supervisor of Public Records ordered the Department to fulfill the request. But with a lack of enforcement options from the SPR, it is still to be determined if the Department will comply or not.
MassLive is in the midst of battling a similar issue as the Massachusetts State Police is refusing to comply with the Supervisor of Records ruling. MassLive requested a 911 call placed in connection to a homicide in West Brookfield earlier this year. The request was denied, MassLive appealed, and won. According to MassLive, the MSP also cited exemption f as their reasoning for refusing to release the call.
Exemption f makes another appearance, this time in a MuckRock request filed by Curtis Waltman for MSP email communications. The MSP completed the request, but left out the bulk of the “information relative to the model, make, and quantity of weapons purchased or to be purchased.” They claimed that releasing those records would “compromise law enforcement’s necessary work.”
To add more weight to their case, they cited Supreme Judicial Court case from 1976, Bougas v. Chief of Police of Lexington. The case makes clear that records custodians can release portions or entire exempted documents to certain individuals without releasing them to the entire public.
Then there are other times when police departments simply just never respond, such as the Medford Police who has refused to respond to MuckRock requests for years. As of June, MuckRock has ten pending requests with the department, despite multiple phone calls and in-person attempts to streamline the process.
With the SPR’s lack of ability to enforce rulings and an overly broad exemption to police records, law enforcement cannot be adequately accounted for in Massachusetts. While there’s always the option to sue, suing is an option usually attainable only for those with deep pockets. With few repercussions for agencies that don’t abide by the law, proper oversight proves tricky in Massachusetts - especially when you’re dealing with those who are supposed to enforce it.
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Image via Massachusetts State Police Facebook