A reporter’s fight to learn more about harassment in a small town’s police department
Months ago, it came to light that several ranking police officers in the town of Shirley, located about 45 miles northwest of Boston in Middlesex County, have been harassing and discriminating against a female officer.
Lt. Alfreda Cromwell has been filing complaints since 2015 describing abuse dating back to 2014, but the department and town seemingly ignored her grievances for almost two years. I posited that if the Shirley police internal affairs system failed a woman who was in a position of power, relative to people on the street who interact with these officers, there is little chance that the system works for citizens who run afoul of cops who are known to be abusive towards women.
It appears that I am right, but the town of Shirley has successfully avoided full disclosure on the matter.
In November 2016, Cromwell was suspended and fired a week later by the Shirley Board of Selectmen based on the word of the then-Police Chief Thomas Goulden, against whom she’d been filing complaints. The local Nashoba Valley Advocate reported that Goulden was later removed, in part over the handling of Cromwell, due to a grassroots movement in the town.
An external investigation into her claims by a third-party employment specialist later substantiated several of Cromwell’s accusations. Cromwell received her job back with a promotion, but two of the officers found to have harassed her remain with the department. The investigation found that while he was police chief, Goulden once ordered an officer to drive him past a house where Cromwell was staying—possibly on multiple occasions. According to the officer, whose name is redacted in the report, Goulden questioned him as to why Cromwell’s car was in the driveway and not hidden in the garage. Officer Laprade, about whom there are multiple citizen complaints alleging rudeness and harassment, was found to have been unprofessional on multiple occasions, including being degrading about Cromwell’s sexuality and calling her a bitch. His behavior was seemingly trivialized in the report as being “old school.” The report lists two redacted names who characterize Laprade’s communication style as “crude and sexualized.”
On Oct 19, I made a request for all citizen complaints about Goulden and about Officers Peter Violette and Craig Laprade, who were also named in Cromwell’s complaints for the time period of Cromwell’s complaints as well as all corresponding IA files. Over the course of the last two and a half months, the town of Shirley has been stonewalling. First it failed to respond, then it sent some records with no explanation. Later came an incomplete response.
In November, I reported that I had won an appeal I made to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s records division, which oversees the public records law. It ordered the town of Shirley to provide a detailed response to my request. Instead of complying with the order, a lawyer named Tim Zessin sent me an email from a private account assuring me that he had spoken with the Shirley police records access officer (RAO), who told him that I already had the records. I explained that I needed a proper response from the town. He refused, and no one from any town email contacted me.
Given that I never received anything directly from the town, I requested that Galvin’s office send order to the attorney general for enforcement. On Dec 27 Galvin’s office ruled that it wouldn’t enforce the order because the lawyer claims the town’s RAO said he could answer for the town. The office then ordered the town to respond again, but this time it didn’t put a deadline in the order.
The lack of a deadline is a disaster. Even though the state of Massachusetts does not enforce records orders, the deadlines still serve a purpose. When the deadline in an order has passed, the agency ignoring the order is breaking the law, something I often highlight when writing articles; additionally, it could be used in a records lawsuit as evidence. The lack of deadline means the town can now simply claim to be in the process of following the order until the end of time without violating the law. There is no reason to believe the records I sought will ever be turned over.
Because the town won’t tell me if there are records it is holding exempt in their entirety, I cannot conclusively report that it has been failing to investigate citizen complaints. What I can accurately report is that there is no evidence that the Shirley police followed up on complaints about its officers. Additionally, it provided no evidence that Cromwell’s complaints were filed with internal affairs, or that it conducted an internal investigation related to Cromwell’s complaints. Lastly, the town provided no record that the two remaining officers, who harassed their coworker for years, faced any consequence or even have the incident on their files.
The December ruling on my appeal is an absolute disaster for records access. It has allowed a town to keep the details of abuse and the failure of the police department’s internal affairs under a shroud. Galvin’s office has set the precedent that third parties can privately respond to records requests from accounts that are not subject to the records law, and the lack of a deadline on the order is a sneaky backdoor way to absolve an RAO of their legal responsibility to produce records. My email questioning the open-ended order received no reply from Galvin’s office.