Gov. Baker’s reform bill would make it easier to access police records

BOSTON — When Gov. Charlie Baker introduced his 18-page police reform bill on Beacon Hill last month, the section outlining record-keeping didn’t receive as much attention as other, more ambitious proposals.

But the bill, known as “An Act to Improve Police Officer Standards and Accountability and to Improve Training,” would significantly change Massachusetts public records laws when it comes to releasing law enforcement documents.

“Members of the public will also be able to access certain information about police officers, including their certification status,” Gov. Baker said when he introduced the legislation June 17.

The bill would create a “Police Officer Standard and Accreditation (POSA) Committee” to track certified law enforcement officers, as well as maintain a record database.

Those records, which Baker said would be considered public documents, include:

  • dates of certification, renewal of certification, decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand
  • records of completion of training
  • date and nature of any separation, including suspension, resignation, retirement, and termination
  • reason for separation, including whether the separation was based on misconduct, or whether the appointing authority was conducting an investigation for misconduct
  • date of any criminal conviction and the charge of conviction
  • date of sustained internal affairs complaint and the charge sustained

Massachusetts law considers personnel files of government employees-- including police officers-- exempt from public record requests.

However, a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge ruled in 2003 certain parts of internal affairs investigations are public.

But the governor’s proposal would open up information about officers who may leave a department before an investigation is concluded.

“The information that would be available to the public is reasonable,” Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said.

Kyes is president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association and was involved in early versions of the Governor’s bill.

“I read it once, and I read it again, and I said, ‘This [bill] isn’t bad,’” Kyes said.

Boston civil rights attorney Howard Friedman said the state should keep track of all complaints made against police, even the ones that don’t result in discipline or reprimand.

“Most officers in their career have one to two complaints. I’ve seen officers with 20, 25, 30 complaints. They’re doing something wrong,” Friedman said.

Friedman has spent the last 40 years representing plaintiffs who accuse police of misconduct.

“What departments should be looking for is officers with a pattern of complaints,” Friedman said.

Rahsaan Hall is director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“We want to make sure that the people who are in those positions have some of the best training and make sure that they don’t have a history of abuse or misconduct,” Hall said.

Hall believes increased transparency is key to keeping officers with a history of bad behavior from bouncing from department to department.

“We want to prevent officers from being able to stay on a police force after being engaged in misconduct or leave a police force in lieu of termination and then go work for another smaller police department,” Hall said.

Friedman worries there could an adverse side effect of the governor’s proposal: more police supervisors covering up for their officers.

“Departments would be even more reluctant to sustain discipline knowing one, that it could be a public record, but two, that it could lead to termination,” Friedman said.

The bill is currently in the hands of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

“In several recent meetings with legislative leadership and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus the State Police Association of Massachusetts expressed support for the establishment of a standards and accreditation committee, which includes increased transparency and reporting,” a spokesperson for the State Police Association of Massachusetts said in an email.

Emails seeking response from the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition, Massachusetts Police Association, and Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police went unanswered.