Law needs strengthening, enforcement

by

By Anne Brennan

 

Before Sept. 11, 2001, it was difficult for us to get a response to a public records request but more often than not, we received what we were asking for. After 9/11, obtaining the requested documents became much more difficult. Massachusetts law enforcement used security as a means to deny the release of even the simplest information. This mindset soon emboldened public officials, beyond law enforcement, to deny record requests for reasons far beyond what the law allows.

 

I am not sure if the is a coincidence or not, but what we have now is capriciousness among public officials when addressing requests for information. The Times was once denied a 911 tape because of what a state official assumed we would do with the information – and because he apparently didn’t like what he thought we were going to do.

 

Emergency 911 call tapes are one of the most visible public records. A police officer delivers a baby on the highway, a child saves the life of his mother who is diabetic, a screaming woman calls for help as an intruder attacks her – it’s the drama of real life. And it is good publicity for the police and fire departments. Police and fire officials practically gift wrap these tapes when requested. But when information from a 911 call can help us determine whether police acted properly in a certain situation, getting the tape or transcript is, well, impossible.

 

In 2005, a Chatham woman placed a frantic call to the state police reporting that her husband had a gun and was going to commit suicide, at least that’s what we were told by law enforcement officials. Two patrolmen went to the house, made brief contact with the man, who was in an upstairs bedroom and had a gun. The man said he would be right down. A short time later, the police officers heard a single shot. Rather than ending the situation at that point, about 30 police officers – including a SWAT team – were dispatched to the scene where a 6½-hour stand-off ensued, which cost taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars. It turns out the man had committed suicide shortly after the police arrived.

 

We wanted to find out if the police had acted properly because the SWAT team had been involved in other controversial situations, so we requested several records, including a tape or transcript of the 911 call. The family got wind of the request and asked us not to pursue it. In an effort to influence our decision, I guess, they said they had connections with powerful Republicans in Washington. This did not deter us. I cannot say the same for the Republican district attorney.

 

The call had gone to the state police, who denied our request for the tape using the privacy exemption – with the district attorney’s blessing. We appealed to Keeper of Public Records Alan Cote, in the Secretary of State’s office, saying that the state police routinely release 911 tapes and transcripts, all of which reveal private details of the lives of the people involved.

 

Cote denied our appeal saying in essence that the Times’ only interest was to sensationalize a tragedy that had befallen the family of the dead man.

In the years since this incident, the local SWAT team has been involved in other controversies. And the family of the dead man is suing the Town of Chatham for mishandling the 911 call.

 

 A few years ago, the Times won a Supreme Judicial Court decision in a public records case against the Barnstable County Sheriff. The suit cost thousands of dollars. In today’s financial climate, many media outlets are hesitant to file suits because of the cost.

 

We do, however, arm all Times reporters and editors with a copy of the public records law. When a record is denied, the official is challenged to specify which exemption they are using. This is often an effective tool when dealing with local officials, less so on the state level, but it is better than nothing. Many times officials are ignorant of the law and when informed, they hand over the papers.

 

But we must fight for a stronger, more sweeping law.

 

We are in dire financial straits right now. Cities and towns across the commonwealth are struggling to stay afloat. The public blames the government for getting the country and state into this mess. Secrecy and a lack of transparency have contributed to the public’s almost total loss of confidence in their government and their unwillingness to foot the bill. So it is in the interest of not only the public but also those who are running the government to pass a public records law that removes the obstacles to an open and transparent government. All branches should be covered by the law and anyone found to have violated the law should be punished with a fine.

 

Anne Brennan is an editor at the Cape Cod Times.

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