This article has been cross-posted at Massachusetts Cop Block
In October, I wrote about how a UMass Lowell student was threatened by a campus police officer for video-recording him. Brendan Brown was recording the police respond to a fight outside an apartment when he was confronted by a police officer and told to “Shut that fucking thing off before I slap you.”
In case you missed the first post, you can check out the video below:
In my first article about the incident, I reported that UMass Lowell Police Chief Randolph Brashears was investigating the incident and said that he would tell me about the results of the investigation once it was complete.
Yesterday, I finally received a (snail mail) letter from Chief Brashears. Here’s what the letter said (click here for scan in .jpeg format):
I want to thank you again for being the first to bring the matter of the Youtube video to my attention. Officer Noberto Melendez was investigated for his comments to the student on October 8th that was captured on camera. The subsequent allegations against the officer were sustained and he will be disciplined in accordance with University policy and the Teamsters union.
This unfortunate event has given us the opportunity to retrain our entire department concerning recent court decisions that allow citizens to film police and victims of crime who are interacting with the police.
Thanks again for contacting our agency.
I was glad to read certain parts of this letter. It’s good that Chief Brashears has voluntarily released the name of the officer who threatened the student. It’s also good to hear that he sustained the complaint against the officer.
But it’s not enough for Chief Brashears to simply claim that the officer will be disciplined without providing any details. Unless he is transparent enough to say how the officer will be disciplined, there’s no reason for us to believe that he has actually done anything. Even if the officer is disciplined, we can’t gauge whether the discipline was appropriate unless we know how he was disciplined.
Since I believe that Chief Brashears hasn’t been sufficiently transparent about this incident, I decided to send a public records request to his department. I sent out two copies of the request. One was a physical copy that I sent through traditional mail. The other was an electronic copy that I sent via email.
Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, anyone can send a request to any state or local government agency in Massachusetts for copies of records kept by that agency. Government agencies are required to respond to these requests within 10 days and must agree to release the records unless they contain certain types of information that are exempt from disclosure. They may charge fees for providing the copies, but there are some limitations on how much they can charge. (Check here for more information about making public records requests in Massachusetts.)
Unfortunately, there are problems with the public records law. As The Boston Globe documented in a 2009 article, government agencies are often able to get away with wrongfully delaying the release of time sensitive information, using loopholes to charge exorbitant amounts of money for records, illegally destroying public records, and even flat out ignoring requests.
Nevertheless, making public records requests is one of the best options people have for getting answers to questions they have about government agencies in Massachusetts.
The request I sent to Chief Brashears asks for copies of any documents related to his investigation of Officer Melendez (my hope is that the file will contain information about how Melendez was disciplined) as well as documents related to the training he said his officers have received.
You can read the request I sent out below (click here for .pdf version):
This is a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10). As you may be aware, the Public Records Law requires you to provide me with a written response within 10 calendar days. If you cannot comply with my request, you are statutorily required to provide an explanation in writing.
We recently communicated about an incident during which UMass Lowell police officer Noberto Melendez threatened a student for video-recording him. During our correspondence, you were helpful and provided some information to me, however, I feel that there are certain details about this incident that the public should be informed about that you have yet to disclose.
In our previous correspondence, you said that you had investigated Officer Melendez over his conduct. I would like for you to provide me with copies of all documents related to this investigation.
You also said that you had sustained allegations against Officer Melendez and had plans to discipline him “in accordance with University policy and the Teamsters union.” However, you did not say how you planned to discipline him. I would like to know in advance whether or not the file on the investigation contains specific information about what discipline Officer Melendez will be subjected to.
You may be aware that there is an exemption to the public records law for personnel information, however, you should also be aware that this exemption does not apply to documents related to internal investigations by police agencies. The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that “materials in an internal affairs investigation are different in kind from the ordinary evaluations, performance assessments and disciplinary determinations encompassed in the public records exemption for ‘personnel [file] or information'” and are subject to disclosure under the public records law (Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corporation vs. Chief of Police of Worcester & another. (AC 02-P-1632) 58 Mass. App. Ct. 1 (2003)).
In our previous correspondence, you also mentioned that your department has been “retrain[ed]… concerning recent court decisions that allow citizens to film police and victims of crime who are interacting with the police.” I would like copies of any documents related to this training including but not limited to policy memos circulated within the department. I would also like a copy of the department’s written policy on dealing with members of the public who record police officers.
I recognize that you may charge reasonable costs for copies, as well as for personnel time needed to comply with this request. If you expect costs to exceed $10.00, please provide a detailed fee estimate. I would appreciate it if you waived any fees associated with the fulfillment of this request as I believe the release of these documents is in the public interest.
I appreciate you taking time to read over and consider this public records request. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.
Chief Brashears told me in an email that he has forwarded the electronic copy of the request to the department’s attorney. I’ll post an update when I get a response.