In lawsuit, public defenders say Springfield is stonewalling requests for police misconduct records

In lawsuit, public defenders say Springfield is stonewalling requests for police misconduct records

SPRINGFIELD — Massachusetts public defenders are asking the courts to force the city to turn over internal police records regarding a number of officers accused of misconduct or civil rights abuses in recent years.

The state Committee for Public Services on Friday filed a complaint in Hampden Superior Court claims the city has ignored a request for public records for nearly a year, failing to provide requested documents and offering no explanation for why they are being withheld.

The complaint, which names Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and City Clerk Tasheena Davis as defendants, accuses the city of engaging in a “total disregard” of the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The suit asks the court to declare that the city is in violation of the law, and to order the release of the documents. It also seeks to have the city pay for any costs and attorneys fees.

Under the law, a public agency is required to either provide the records within 10 days of receiving a request or provide an explanation for why it is not releasing them. The agency can request additional time or cite a specific exemption to the law for withholding the records. Exemptions to the law include some records regarding ongoing investigations, as well as some personnel records.

Ignoring the request is not an option — but that is what the complaint says the city has done.

The complaint also claims that in addition to ignoring the original request from the committee, Springfield officials also ignored an order from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s supervisor of records, who in March ordered the city to respond in some way to the committee’s request.

“Defendants have not responded in any way, in total regard of the public records law,” the complaint says. “By failing to respond, defendants have failed to meet their burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the record may be withheld in accordance with state or federal law.”

The Committee for Public Services is the state agency that oversees the system of public defenders, the lawyers who are appointed to represent clients who cannot afford attorneys.

Robert P. McGovern Jr., communications director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the city withholding police records prevents public defenders from fully representing their clients.

The records in question are important and impact “an untold number of lives, cases and conviction,” he said.

“Many of those who have come into contact with those officers are our clients, and in order to ensure that their arrests, cases and convictions were proper, we need this information,” he said.

According to the complaint, an attorney with the committee, Lauren Russell, filed two requests for records via first-class mail in December.

The requests sought internal records related to 23 past and present police officers who have been accused of misconduct in recent years.

They include the 14 current and former officers associated with the Nathan Bill’s fight and alleged cover-up. Also included are six past members of the Narcotics Unit who were investigated by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations — including Gregg Bigda and Steven Vigneault, two former narcotics detectives at the center of allegations involving assaults and threats against three teens accused of stealing an unmarked police car in 2016.

Bidga is suspended as he awaits trial in federal court on charges alleging civil rights abuses. Vigneault, who resigned from the police department in 2016, was originally indicted on federal charges. The Department of Justice earlier this year dropped the charges.

The list includes officer Jefferson Petrie, who admitted to an assault charge connected to an altercation with a man in the lobby of the police station in 2017.

The records sought include internal investigations, contents of any dispositions, medical records of people reporting injuries, and correspondence between the police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to the complaint, Russell did not receive a response from the city within 10 days of filing the request. In February, she filed an appeal with Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth’s supervisor of records,

The complaint notes the supervisor of records, Rebecca S. Murray, in March noted the city had not made any response to her requests and she ordered Springfield to either provide the requested information to Russell or explain why it could not be released.

At the time of the complaint’s filing, Russell wrote that she has not heard directly from the city regarding the original request.

Published at Tue, 24 Nov 2020 12:31:00 +0000

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