The Massachusetts secretary of state’s office has ruled that records related to criminal charges of police officers are exempt from state public records law, giving police chiefs and other officials the power to keep information related to wrongdoing in their departments secret.
The rulings were issued after the Boston Globe challenged several departments’ refusal to release records pertaining to misconduct by their officers.
Among the decrees, the secretary of state’s office asserted that Boston police can withhold the names of five officers caught drunk driving, and that state police can withhold reports on an officer who was arrested. For what? No one knows.
Also, the state ruled that North Andover police can refuse to release booking photos of a state trooper, and that the state Department of Correction can withhold its entire log of incarcerated peoples.
The secretary of state’s office claims already established regulations give them the authority to limit public access to the state databases by giving law enforcement officials sweeping power to control what criminal records are released.
“[Departments] have the discretion to withhold records determined to be Criminal Offender Record Information(CORI),” wrote Shawn Williams, the state’s supervisor of public records in a Feb. 20 order permitting state police to withhold an arrest report.
The rulings makes Massachusetts public records law, already considered one of the weakest in the nation, to be an outlier compared to the vast majority of other states where criminal records are considered ‘public information.’
“The most basic information on an arrest is almost always public,” said Adam Marshall, a fellow with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which tracks public records laws across the country.
The organization says at least 40 states in the US have open records polices.
Police departments have welcomed the rulings, noting that departments sometimes have good reason to withhold records to avoid disrupting ongoing cases and to protect people’s privacy rights – victims of child sexual abuse for example.
“We wholeheartedly agree that police agencies must have discretion in determining which records are appropriate for public release at the time they are requested,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said.
Legal challenges to the rulings are expected.