Who do you call when the cops rip you off?
“It is shameful that this is happening in such a progressive state like Massachusetts, which is supposed to value transparency and freedom of information. I believe that nothing short of the threat of legal charges will convince the media relations department of the Boston police to do their jobs. Please do your part to make this happen.”
So wrote Evan Anderson, a contributor to the Boston-based news site MuckRock (as well as to DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism), in a note to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office asking for help bringing criminal charges against members of the Boston Police Department.
The reason: They robbed him.
State law is supposed to guarantee the public access to government records within 10 days of receiving a request. But when we spoke with Anderson in March, it had been more than a year since he cut the BPD a $402.50 check for 700 pages worth of department email correspondence with the National Security Agency—and despite sending more than two dozen follow-up emails and making numerous phone calls, he still didn’t have any records to show for it.
On March 25, Rachel McGuire, an officer with the BPD media relations office, reached out to Anderson. She explained that the department would now only provide 41 pages worth of emails. “I was told that 500 pages aren’t what I requested, and that 149 or so are exempt because of investigatory reasons,” Anderson explained to us.
McGuire offered to reimburse some of Anderson’s money, since regulations that had recently been adopted by the secretary of the Commonwealth’s office now only allow agencies to charge five cents per page for copying or printing records. However, McGuire claimed that providing Anderson with the 41 pages would still take the same 17-and-a-half hours of labor as was originally projected to process 700 pages, so the department needed to keep $262.50 of his money. In case you aren’t counting, that’s roughly 43 minutes of labor per page at a cost of about $6.40.
Anderson had a different idea: The department should simply provide him with the 41 pages, along with the 500 pages that were deemed not relevant to his request since he had already paid for them. “This way, there is no need to refund the money as it can be put toward the cost of reviewing the remaining pages,” he explained in an email to McGuire. Anderson suspected that the 500 pages may include emails about the NSA, so he was still curious to see what was in them.
“Please, send us your phone number so that we may make some clarifications on your new request,” McGuire wrote back more than a week later. Anderson provided his number that day, but says he never received a call or any records—not even the 41 pages she promised. Anderson sent several subsequent emails and left several voice mail messages, but McGuire, who made $133,258.88 last year, just ignored him.
Anderson was finally able to reach McGuire on May 11, but says she wasn’t particularly helpful. Instead of asking for clarification, he says she only told him the legal department was working on his request and that she would check with them. It’s unclear how the department was working on the request without any details; needless to say, no one from BPD has reached out to Anderson since.
On May 24, Anderson sent an appeal to the secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, asking for help getting the media relations staff prosecuted. In theory, that’s a real possibility; under state law, anyone who violates the public records law can be punished with hundreds of dollars in fines and up to a year in jail.
But realistically, it’s not going to happen. It’s been more than a month and Galvin’s office hasn’t listed Anderson’s appeal on its list of open appeals. Even if they do acknowledge his grievance, Galvin’s office does not actually have the power to prosecute public officials who violate the law. It can only refer violations of the law to the attorney general or a district attorney, and it rarely does so. Galvin’s office has only escalated one violation of the law to the AGO in the past several years, and it didn’t result in a prosecution. Last year, a spokesperson for the AGO told the Boston Globe they weren’t aware of a single instance in which the agency has prosecuted a violation of the public records law.
That’s a shame, because Anderson’s experience is not an isolated incident. Jonathan Cohn, a member of the anti-Olympics group No Boston 2024, has also been robbed by BPD. After reading about how police monitored anti-Olympic activists in Chicago, Cohn filed a request last August 26 to see if Boston police did likewise.
At first, BPD simply ignored Cohn’s request, along with several follow-up emails. Cohn sent an appeal to Galvin’s office on November 21, and on January 4, the secretary ordered BPD to comply with Cohn’s request within 10 days. But that didn’t happen. Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, the head of BPD’s media relations department, did not provide Cohn a response until January 28. McCarthy also asked for an obscene amount of money: nearly $170,000.
The enormous fee appears to be the result of a misunderstanding by McCarthy. One of the items Cohn asked for was, “Any records, electronic or written, from June 13, 2015, referencing the Boston Pride parade AND the terms ‘Boston 2024’ and/or ‘Olympic(s).’” McCarthy claimed BPD has an astonishing 145,560 responsive emails, but Cohn suspects McCarthy treated his “AND” as an “OR,” and that the department may not have limited his query to the specific day Cohn asked about. Cohn asked McCarthy to provide a new fee estimate, but says the lieutenant insisted there really were that many records because of multiple people being copied on the same emails. We did the math: Even if the entire Boston police staff of about 2,700 (that includes civilians) was copied on each email, there would still have to be more than 50 unique responsive emails all sent in one day for McCarthy’s estimate to be accurate.
Meanwhile, Cohn sent BPD a check for $51.95 on March 11 for some of the other Olympics-related records he had requested, namely emails with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies, as well as emails sent by a specific BPD detective. McCarthy, who took home $202,231.92 in pay last year, did not confirm that BPD had received Cohn’s check until April 5, nearly a month later. Since then, another three months have passed, and Cohn still doesn’t have his records.
Cohn has tried calling the media relations department a number of times, but he hasn’t been able to get any answers. “Whenever I’ve called, I’m just told, ‘Oh, it’ll be a couple weeks. We don’t have an exact date.’ Or, ‘It’ll be by the end of this week,’” he says. “Last time, I was told that it’s not even in their department.” Last month, Cohn contacted Galvin’s office again to ask for help. Instead of doing anything to help Cohn get his records, on June 22 the secretary closed Cohn’s appeal. Rather than advancing the issue to the AGO for enforcement, the state simply instructed McCarthy to provide the records. Since the appeal is closed, if the BPD opts not to provide the records, Cohn would have to open yet another useless appeal.
An update to the public records law is set to go into effect next year, but it does nothing to address this problem. The new law sets a longer timeline for agencies to provide records, and that timeline’s enforcement will still be left to Galvin and Healey, who don’t enforce the current timeline. Entrusting the people who refuse to uphold the current law with enforcing the new one makes as much sense as expecting the Boston police to provide the records you’ve paid them for.