Note: The author of this article, Shelby Lee, will be joined by fellow reporter Dusty Christensen and Northampton Policing Review Commissioner Daniel Cannity for a panel discussion on “Police Accountability and the Media” on Thursday, November 16 at 7 p.m. at Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton. The event is hosted by The Shoestring and discussion will be facilitated by Sierra Dickey. RSVP here!
Earlier this spring, The Shoestring reported on a significant sum the Easthampton Police Department hoped to spend on weaponry as part of its “capital improvement plan.” But how does the small department’s plans to buy expensive gear — including patrol rifles, forensics vans, remote restraint devices and high-end electric vehicles — compare to other departments? That’s a question police departments are refusing to answer.
In the months since, The Shoestring has requested records to compare weapons inventory and purchases across municipalities with varying population sizes. After requesting records from seven municipalities across the state, The Shoestring has battled for the public records with six of them: Northampton, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Somerville, Longmeadow and Palmer.
Besides Easthampton, the only municipality to provide the requested records was Southampton, which redacted weapons serial numbers making the list ambiguous and unverifiable. The state supervisor of records, who is tasked with both interpreting and applying the state’s public records law, later made determinations that the serial numbers could not be redacted.
To date, the remaining six municipalities have not provided the records, or have provided heavily redacted or incomplete records. None have provided the inventory lists.
Four out of the six police departments involved — Northampton, Somerville, Palmer and Longmeadow — have attempted to claim the same exemptions to the state’s public records law, with some using nearly identical wording. These municipalities’ responses to the records requests refused to provide weapons inventory lists, saying that doing so “would undermine public safety as it relates to security measures and emergency preparedness.”
The state’s supervisor of records has ruled that those police departments have not sufficiently proved the records they are withholding meet the requirements to claim such exemptions, and cannot withhold the requested records entirely. However, in some cases the state implied that some portions of records may be withheld “to the extent the records contain information that would reveal security measures that a terrorist would find useful to maximize damage or jeopardize public safety.” In all cases the state said their offices were not provided the “factual heft” needed to definitively claim portions of records are exempt.
The Northampton Police Department responded on April 19, providing The Shoestring with officer qualifications to use certain weapons but withholding the arms list, claiming multiple exemptions from the records law. The NPD alleged that release of the records would “advise potential and actual criminals of weaknesses” and would “allow wrongdoers to thwart investigatory efforts” of the NPD.
In June, the supervisor of records ruled that the NPD did not provide evidence to claim those exemptions and ordered the department to provide a response consistent with the law. The NPD responded saying it would continue to withhold the records.
“Obviously, a terrorist would find a weapons inventory list maintained by a law enforcement agency useful,” the department’s response said. The Shoestring has appealed the department’s withholding of the records, and on Oct. 27, the supervisor of records again determined that Northampton couldn’t withhold the records in their entirety and must provide a response consistent with the records law.
NPD Chief Jody Kasper has been one of the loudest advocates in the state for building up police departments in preparation for hypothetical terror threats. In her 2010 book “Progressive Police Supervision,” Kasper wrote that the era of community policing is “over” and in the “new era” there is “a focus on homeland security, terrorism and fear.” Kasper wrote that “under the umbrella of homeland security in the new century, law enforcement has narrowed its focus” and that the “new emphasis is on terrorism, school safety, response to mass casualty incidents, biological warfare and threats to information and computer security.”
“Terrorism and the possibility of further attacks is now an everyday consideration,” she wrote.
Kasper has also previously elected to attend a training event in Washington D.C. called the “Advanced Training School in Extremist and Terrorist Threats,” according to emails between Kasper and then-mayor David Narkewicz. In 2018, Kasper accepted an invitation to a 15-day trip to an Anti-Defamation League-funded “New England Counter-Terrorism Seminar” to train with the Israeli Defence Forces, though her participation was later canceled by Narkewicz after pressure from city residents.
The city of Somerville has so far put the most effort into pushing back against The Shoestring’s public records requests, initially failing to even respond until The Shoestring appealed to the state. Just two days after Northampton’s response, Somerville issued a similar response, claiming a risk to homeland security.
The city’s lawyers initially sent The Shoestring a response that cited outdated case law. After the state ordered Somerville to respond again because the department had not met the requirements of the exemption it cited, the city released incomplete and redacted records. When The Shoestring appealed again to the state, the department released some details of what an officer typically carries, but refused to provide the arms list, again citing the homeland security exemption. Wording in the response said that providing the records would “undermine public safety” and that a person plotting to attack the police department would “benefit greatly” from the arms list. The city’s lawyer went on to allege that records could “subject the weapons to theft by a person learning detailed information about them.”
In the ensuing months, the state conducted two more reviews and continued to order the city to provide adequate records. On Oct. 3, the city’s lawyer stated bluntly in an email to The Shoestring and the state that he did not agree with the state’s stance, providing instead an opinion from Pennsylvania state courts he felt “should be adopted by the Supervisor of Public Records.”
From now until the end of 2023, your donation to The Shoestring will be matched by NewsMatch and generous local donors. Can you make a contribution to sustain reporting like this for your community while your donation goes farther than ever?
In Palmer, The Shoestring’s initial request to the police department’s listed records access officer went to John Janulewicz, the former police chief. He responded within a day, saying he had retired “several years ago.”
Eventually, the Palmer Police Department responded on April 12, withholding all of the records The Shoestring requested, citing exemptions similar to Northampton and Somverville, including homeland security risk. On April 27, the state ordered the department to provide a lawful response saying “it is unclear how the requested records in this case resemble the records listed in the statute” and “the record bears little resemblance to the types listed in the statute.”
On May 12, Palmer police again replied citing the same exemptions and refusing to provide records. On June 13, the state ordered the department again to provide the records. The department has provided no further response.
The city of Longmeadow also claimed the same exemption as Palmer, Northampton and Somverville. Longmeadow initially responded withholding all records claiming the homeland security risk exemption before the state ordered the department to make a lawful response on April 18.
Longmeadow replied on May 3 with a list of “equipment officers typically carry” and a statement that all officers carry firearms qualification, signed by Police Chief Robert Stock. Longmeadow claimed the same previous exemption as a reason for continuing to withhold the records.
On June 2, the state ordered Longmeadow police to comply with an in camera review of the records they were withholding. On July 6, the state told The Shoestring via email that Longmeadow “intends to make a further response” to the records request and ordered Longmeadow to do so. On July 23, the city responded with some qualification records but continued to withhold the requested records and listed exemptions for records they had previously provided in part. The Shoestring has since submitted another request to the state for review.
On Nov. 6, the state responded that Longmeadow had not demonstrated how any of the records law exemptions were applicable to the records they are withholding and ordered Longmeadow to comply with state law. In this determination the state also says the department stated “in light of recent events worldwide, concerns over homegrown terrorism and acts of violence on the local level are possible” and that the records would give “criminals and/ or terrorists” a tactical advantage. Additionally the state highlighted Longmeadow’s inconsistency in its records response, stating “it is unclear why the Department has cited Exemptions (b) and (j) of the Public Records Law to withhold the records, when it appears the Department previously provided the responsive records on May 3, 2023.”
The cities of Pittsfield and Holyoke have opted for the silent treatment.
Pittsfield acknowledged The Shoestring’s request in April, and asked via email to communicate over the phone. When asked to continue communication via email, the city stopped responding and the state supervisor of records has since ordered the department to comply with the public records law. The city has not responded, and further inquiries to the state records supervisor have gone unanswered.
The Holyoke Police Department’s only response said that the department would only provide records through its third-party portal, which requires an account and agreement to the third party terms and conditions. The state informed the HPD on April 20 that the department could not require that record requests be made or received through the portal and ordered the department to provide the requested records. The HPD made no further response.
Holyoke police have a history of losing their firearms.
In 2011, Holyoke officer John Hart lost a department-issued sniper rifle, for which superiors suspended him for five days. Three years later, he was suspended for 10 days after leaving his gun in a restroom at the Holyoke Mall. And in 2022, an officer lost a department-issued firearm after stuffing it under the seat of his car. Prosecutors did not charge the officer with a crime, and the city’s police chief reinstated his license to carry a firearm.
Transparency advocates consistently rank Massachusetts as one of the most opaque states in the entire country. It is the only state in which the Legislature, Judiciary and governor’s office all claim to be exempt from the public records law. The state’s Public Records Division has no meaningful way to enforce its decisions if a record keeper refuses to comply.
The supervisor of records can refer the issue out to the attorney general’s office, but once a records dispute enters into this area it can be a long time before it is reviewed. There is no timeline in which the AG’s office has to investigate the issue once it is referred to them, and very few cases ever even make it that far .
Until significant changes are made to the records law, the only recourse available for those being denied public records is obtaining representation and going to court. This lengthy and expensive process allows municipalities to greatly delay the release of records and dodge transparency to the public.
In June, independent journalist Andrew Quemere sued the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office over their refusal to hand over records relating to police misconduct. In a phone interview with The Shoestring, Quemere said the “glaring issue” and “root of the problem” with the state’s current public records system is the lack of enforcement power held by the supervisor of records.
“The whole system is based on the idea that the burden is on the agency but literally everything is on you,” Quemere said. “You have to keep bugging the supervisor to get help.”
Quemere said that he, like The Shoestring, has received “comically vague” responses from the supervisor “ordering agencies to provide a lawful response or that some records or portions of records may potentially be exempt.”
Quemere also said the Public Records Division doesn’t use the power that it does have.
“These people do know the law,” he said. “So it’s bizarre, they are allowed to insert their own judgment until a court has contradicted them in some way, but they just don’t make use of that power.”
Quemere described the process of seeking representation for such cases as difficult and time consuming. He found in his search for representation that it is a sort of niche area of law practice and the prospects of attorneys recuperating adequate compensation for their time spent on the case is minimal. Attorney’s fees may be requested and awarded if a public records lawsuit is successful, but ultimately it is up to the judge presiding over the case to determine the amount.
Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.