An independent journalist has sued the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office over its refusal to release the names of police officers accused of misconduct.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in Suffolk County Superior Court, reporter Andrew Quemere said that District Attorney David Sullivan — the top cop in Hampshire and Franklin counties — has illegally withheld the names of police officers on its list of cops who have been found to have credibility issues. Known as Brady lists, district attorneys keep them because prosecutors are required to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants in criminal cases.
“David Sullivan publishes press releases with the names of people he charged with crimes on his website, but he doesn’t want you to know the names of police officers who have been charged,” Quemere said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “He has had to rely on absurd arguments because he has no argument.”
In an email, First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said that the DA’s office is in receipt of Quemere’s lawsuit but has “not yet had the chance to review or respond to it.”
Quemere, who writes The Mass Dump newsletter and has previously written for The Shoestring, is a frequent filer of public records requests. He says that since 2014, he has filed 460 appeals of public-records denials with the state’s supervisor of records.
In an interview with The Shoestring, Quemere accused Sullivan’s office of making “absurd” legal arguments for redacting the names of police officers from its Brady disclosure letters, as well as court-case numbers of those officers who faced legal charges.
But the bigger underlying issue, Quemere said, is the complete lack of power given to the state official in charge of enforcing the state’s public-records law. Agencies will withhold public information because they know that the state’s supervisor of records has no ability to enforce her decisions herself, he said.
“They know that if they deny public records, all you can do is sue,” he said. “There just aren’t enough attorneys out here to do this work.”
The attorney who is representing Quemere is Mason Kortz, who is a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, which provides pro bono legal services on issues including free speech.
In 2020, the state Legislature updated the public records law to clarify that a “privacy exemption” currently on the books “shall not apply to records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation.” In a statement, Kortz said that amendment was part of a larger police-accountability bill and that allowing law enforcement to shield officers from public scrutiny would significantly undermine that legislative intent of the bill.”
“We think the best interpretation is the most obvious one,” he said. “When a police officer is suspected of unprofessional, unethical, or illegal conduct, the public has a right to know the results.”
Massachusetts is often described as having one of the most opaque public-records laws in the country. It is the only state where the legislative, judicial and executive branches all claim to be exempt from the open records law.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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