State police often don't comply with Public Records Law
Posted in the Fitchburg Forum
#1 Mar 10, 2013
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Ignoring the law
State police often don't comply with Public Records Law
John M. Lajoie, owner of Lajoie Investigations, holds the Massachusetts State Police, Internal Affairs, Citizen Response Form that was filed with state police.(T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG)
By Thomas Caywood TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
An excerpt from the office of the State Supervisor of Records in a case involving the state police.
… the public's right of access to public information should be pre-eminent. It's a key part of our system of government.
-- Robert J. Ambrogi, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MASSACHUSETTS NEWSPAPER PUBLISHERS ASSOCIATION
WORCESTER — The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender — verging on a career criminal — when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.
The agency often fails to respond to public records requests within 10 days as required by law and sometimes takes months to respond, and then only after repeated prodding by state regulators, according to a Telegram & Gazette review of appeals cases against state police handled by Secretary of State William F. Galvin's office.
The appeals files, which number more than 1,000 pages over the last three years, show an ongoing pattern of Public Records Law violations by state police.
State Supervisor of Records Shawn A. Williams and his predecessor, Alan N. Cote, have officially reprimanded or informally chided the state police for failing to comply with the law dozens of times to little effect.
In some cases, state police lawyers simply blew off inquiries from the supervisor of records just as they had those from the person requesting the records, the files show.
Several people who complained to the supervisor of records about such conduct couldn't help but note the obvious irony.
“Legally, you have ten days to respond, so the largest law enforcement outfit in the state is breaking the law,” wrote Joseph Brennan of Plymouth.
David J. Thompson of Woburn, himself a former state police employee, wrote that he was “disheartened” to see that the chief legal counsel of the state's top law enforcement agency could “disregard statutes with impunity.”
And West Boylston private investigator John M. Lajoie, who recently took the unusual step of filing a misconduct complaint against current state police Chief Legal Counsel Michael B. Halpin over the issue, said in an interview:“What really frosts me the most is when the people who are supposed to enforce the law violate the law.”
The agency's superintendent, Col. Timothy Alben, said in an interview this past week that his legal department simply doesn't have enough staff to keep up with the between 900 and 1,100 public records requests per year, some of which he characterized as “nuisance” requests.
“There are things in this business that, you know, don't always strictly comply with what the law requires, unfortunately,” Col. Alben said, later adding,“Our ability to comply with the law is certainly handcuffed somewhat by the resources that are available to me here.”
With fewer employees and less funding in recent years, the agency has been forced to make tough decisions about its priorities, he said.
“The law is the law,” responded Robert J. Ambrogi, a first amendment lawyer and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.
#2 Mar 10, 2013
“The law sets time periods and other requirements for a specific reason, and no government official is exempt from that,” Mr. Ambrogi said.“I'm sympathetic to the budget realities a lot of government entities face, but the public's right of access to public information should be pre-eminent. It's a key part of our system of government.”
While that may be so, Mr. Lajoie just wants the police report he paid $100 for last fall, after state police broke the law by taking more than a month to respond to his initial request.
Mr. Lajoie, owner of Lajoie Investigations Inc. in West Boylston, and his staff have tried appealing to the supervisor of records, calling state police lawyers several times even though they don't call back, hand delivering a letter of complaint to Col. Alben and, recently, filing a formal citizen complaint of misconduct against Mr. Halpin, the agency's chief legal counsel.
“It's been six months. Where's our report? Where's our money? I'm sick of this,” said Mr. Lajoie, who originally requested the two-page report in August.
Similarly, the Telegram & Gazette hand-delivered an $850 check to state police headquarters in Framingham on Nov. 28, after the agency failed to reply to the initial request within the period required by law. More than three months later, the newspaper has yet to receive the records it paid for.
“I know a lot of state troopers who are friends of mine,” Mr. Lajoie said.“I have a lot of respect for the job they do. But these people up in legal, it's like a circus up there. It's ridiculous.”
Col. Alben said the citizen complaint filed by Mr. Lajoie was not serious enough to warrant an internal affairs investigation into Mr. Halpin's conduct.
Most of the public records appeals against the state police over the last three years were filed by media companies, defense lawyers, civil rights organizations, people disputing speeding tickets and inmates of state prisons.
State law requires custodians of public records to respond to a written requests for documents within 10 days. The response must be either an offer to provide the records with a good-faith estimate of the cost or a denial citing specific statutory exemptions to the law. All state government documents are presumed to be public, although subject to narrow redactions where appropriate, according to the supervisor of records.
That's how it's supposed to work, anyway.
Joseph Brennan of Plymouth appealed to the supervisor of records last summer claiming state police failed to properly respond to his request for an internal affairs complaint against a trooper. His frustrating experience is typical of the kinds of cases in the appeals files.
#3 Mar 10, 2013
“I think there's a reasonable amount of time it could go on past the 10 days that most people wouldn't be that upset, but five months is not reasonable,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview.“The attorneys who work for the state police are not bad people. They're understaffed, but it took me six months to get a price quote that they're supposed to provide in 10 days, and it took the secretary of state's office getting involved to even get it then.”
The supervisor of records can order the release of documents, but the office has no power under the law to enforce its orders. State Attorney General Martha Coakley's office has the authority to enforce the supervisor's orders but rarely does. In the appeals files reviewed by the Telegram & Gazette, the supervisor referred only one case against the state police to the AG's office for enforcement, and the state's top prosecutor declined to take any action.
Mr. Williams, the supervisor of records, did not respond to requests for comment.
Maggie Mulvihill of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University has filed public records appeals against the state police in recent years in her current position and in her previous job as an investigative producer at WBZ-TV, Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Boston.
Ms. Mulvihill said the lack of enforcement power on behalf of the supervisor of public records, and scant enforcement by the AG's office, have engendered a culture of public records stonewalling and foot-dragging among many state agencies.
“Instead of the law being used to contribute to civic health and openness, it just becomes a game to them, to see if they can run out the clock,” she said.“These are government lawyers who take an oath to uphold the law and then they just play games with the public records law.”
A state police spokesman noted that the kinds of records that law enforcement agencies accumulate often contain information exempt from public disclosure and, thus, take longer for lawyers to review and redact before release.
For his part, Col. Alben said a new lawyer recently started in the legal section and another new hire would be starting work this week, bringing the section's staff of lawyers back up to four after some recent turnover. The legal staff also includes a paralegal and a trooper assigned to the office, he said.
“I think it would make any chief executive of any organization in America uncomfortable if they can't comply with the law,” Col. Alben said.“But, again, there are limited ways we have to prioritize what we do here.”
Contact reporter Thomas Caywood at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @CaywoodTG.
#4 Mar 10, 2013
There are only a few employees in the records department and they have to organize thousands of new cases every year. A "working year" is considered 223-228 days because of weekends and holidays and is even less that for their vacation time.
These cases have to be retained by a hard copy or otherwise a paper version that is filed and documented.
The records department also has to pull up old cases for the police for court cases everyday.
So somehow they have to keep up with another 1,100 requests for these documents just for the public and media so they can print it in their local "enquirer" type newspapers?
There are not 100, 50 or even 10 employees in the records department. 2 employees are not going to keep up with the filing of 50 new cases a day, forwarding 100 cases for the courts a day and then looking up and forwarding other cases for the general public too.
It's called priorities!
Well then hire more people for the records department.
#5 Mar 10, 2013
I agree, it is priority. So hire more employees then! Cut back on the MASSIVE OT. I believe their is more OT than regular time! This is good management?
If it was a private company then they would address the OT why not the state police?
This backlog/stonewalling is purposeful!!!!!!!
#6 Mar 10, 2013
Hiring more employees cost more than OT.
Hiring more employees means more "permanent" salaries than using OT pay on an "as needed basis".
Hiring more employees means more expenses for benefits for the new hire (medical insurance) then where a person on OT has their benefits already in place.
Hiring more employees means more pension expenses for the govenmental agency when these new hires retire.
Would you rather spend $900,000 annually to hire more employees and their salaries or spend $200,000 annually to fill in the vacant gaps on an as needed basis?
The private sector has been using "part-time" employees now instead of "full-time" for the same reason. Many "part-time" employees will not receive benefits but may actually end up working close BUT not to full time hours.
#7 Mar 10, 2013
The problem begins with Internal Affairs. The present setup which is the worst that it has ever been is a signal to the citizens that they do not give a f about your civil and/or constitution rights and that they will break the law if they chose and get away with it due to the fact that they have a badge.
It is like armored cars. They give everyone life for armored car robbery. They believe this is a get tough on crime solution. So the robbers say,"we should just kill everyone so there is no witnesses as life is life either way!
Then, they feel, the guy is an ex convict so we can go after him in a more brutal way. So, the ex-con says I'll have court in the street.
There are ways to deal with crime and violence without using violence. All that has been accomplished is they have made the officers job more dangerous.
They are going to create an atmosphere where people begin to kill officers. This is stupid,PERIOD.
The State Police have a better approach than other law enforcement. They approach and they give the person respect from the beginning. What this does is it seperates from the beginning what you are dealing with. It sets a stage for mutual respect.
Most people in jail take responsibility for what they did wrong and they accept the consequences. Many drug dealers do not as they whine in jail constantly!!
If you deal drugs then you have to understand that when you get caught you have to do time.
#8 Mar 10, 2013
The best way to deal with crime is people should not commit any type of crime in the first place!
The problem with you is you see the criminal pros and cons of committing a crime and what a fair sentence should be.
Most "normal" citizens that have been taught morals and values don't look at crime, cops, correctional officers, courts and any other judicial or law enforcement agency the way you do. You know why? BECAUSE THEY DON'T LEAD THAT KIND OF LIFESTYLE!
It isn't you fault because you have been "institutionalized" but you don't realize that.
I'm sorry to say but "non-institutionalized " citizens cannot view the world as you do.
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