BOSTON — As lawmakers huddle over a proposed overhaul of policing in Massachusetts, open government advocates are pressing for greater access to records of law enforcement misconduct.
A bipartisan committee of six lawmakers is trying to work out differences between two bills that would ban the use of chokeholds and tear gas by police, and create a state commission to certify police officers. The Legislature passed the sweeping proposals in response to widespread protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
But open government advocates say a key element of policing reform is prying open disciplinary records that are often shrouded in secrecy.
“There’s been a lot of talk about increasing accountability but not a lot about reforming the state’s public records law, which has been the most significant obstacle to police transparency,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Police departments routinely rely on exemptions in the public records law to refuse to provide information about allegations of police misconduct.”
Among the changes advocates want is a requirement that “all records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation” be made available to the public detailing the allegations and what actions, if any, police departments took in response.
Advocates also are pushing for a publicly accessible database of police misconduct allegations, investigations and outcomes.
“We believe this is necessary to ensure public accountability of disciplinary decisions and to promote public confidence in law enforcement officers,” Ambrogi said.
Another provision would require police departments to keep records of disciplinary actions for at least 40 years. Advocates say police departments routinely destroy records of investigations, sometimes in as little as seven years.
Police records are subject to the state’s public records law. While many are open to public scrutiny, the law makes a number of exceptions, including to shield documents related to personnel issues or ongoing police investigations.
The push for more access is part of a broader effort by advocates to shed more sunlight on government documents. The state’s restrictive records law consistently earns Massachusetts failing grades from First Amendment groups.
The state police received the 2015 “Golden Padlock” award from the group Investigative Reporters and Editors for being the “most secretive” law enforcement agency in the country.
In 2016, the state overhauled its public records law for the first time in decades, which included limits on how much state and local governments and police departments may charge for copies of public records and set deadlines for agencies to respond to requests for information. But lawmakers left in place many of the exemptions shielding the Legislature, courts and law enforcement agencies from disclosing certain records.
It’s not clear when a final version of the policing reform bill will emerge from the committee negotiations. A sticking point in talks is a law that shields individual police officers from civil lawsuits for alleged misconduct.
A Senate version of the bill limits the immunity, while a House approved bill would only revoke it for officers who are decertified for misconduct.
Police unions have ripped efforts to lift those protections, saying it would unleash a wave of frivolous lawsuits and prevent them from doing their jobs.
Lawmakers recently extended the two-year legislative session, giving the committee more time to work out sticking points between the two bills.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Eagle Tribune and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.