Images via copblock.org
The name Henry Staines probably means next to nothing to most people. But this may ring a bell—last April, a video surfaced online of the Boston Police Department sergeant threatening a man filming the arrest of a 14-year-old carrying what turned out to be a fake gun.
In the recording, Staines approaches the man and offers to give him a ride in a cruiser. After the guy asks if he’s doing anything wrong, the sergeant replies, “No, just I always question when you’re taking video of us.” Staines continues, “I’m not giving you permission to film me”—before walking away. He then returns with the realistic-looking toy gun and pushes it up to the camera as another cop points his own camera at the man filming.
That video prompted an internal affairs investigation. Shortly thereafter, the Boston Globe noted that there had been nine cases brought against Staines between 1993 to 2014. A department spokesperson told the Globe that none of the allegations stuck, so I went ahead and requested the related internal affairs files, plus a log of all investigations for the last 15 years. I sent that request to the BPD on May 2, 2015. They finally responded earlier this month, and are asking for $200 to pay for more than 200 pages of documents.
This case exemplifies one of the biggest problems that journalists and the public face in the pursuit of truth and accountability. A man on the street is menaced—and himself filmed in apparent petty retribution—for exercising his right to record police. The incident is investigated from within the department, as is common protocol elsewhere across the country. But instead of being released to the public, the documents produced from those investigations—public records—are kept inside the department, behind a $200 paywall that you only find out about months after asking in the first place. If my public records request had been an embryo, my paper baby would be a month old by now. People conceive and birth new people at a faster clip than the Boston Police Department could cough up a cost estimate for fulfilling this very inconvenient request.
It’s time to see the fruits of those investigations, and for the public to peruse the log of all internal investigations. We should not have to wait months and we should not have to pay for information that is rightfully ours. The police department collects untold amounts of surveillance data on us. What’s a few hundred pages in return?
Payment for these documents is currently being crowdfunded on MuckRock.com.
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Copyright 2016 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.