Lawyer: Police misconduct probes may be constrained if city loses public records lawsuit

Lawyer: Police misconduct probes may be constrained if city loses public records lawsuit

Brad Petrishen
| Telegram & Gazette

WORCESTER – If cities and towns are not allowed to withhold from the public the internal affairs records of officers being sued, they might not thoroughly investigate complaints of police wrongdoing, Worcester’s head litigator suggested in court Monday. 

Assistant city solicitor and head litigator Wendy L. Quinn made the remark during her closing argument in the trial being conducted in Worcester Superior Court between the city and Telegram & Gazette over access to police misconduct records

The central issue in the case is whether the city is allowed to withhold from the public the internal affairs records of police officers who are facing civil lawsuits. 

The T&> argues the city is improperly applying an exemption to the state’s Public Records law for records relating to the development of “policy positions” by agencies and municipalities, while the city says it is properly applying that exemption. 

Quinn said Monday that the exemption “is based on the obvious realization that officials will not communicate candidly among themselves if each remark is a potential item of discovery. 

“So taking this point to the extreme, if exemption D does not apply in this circumstance that may actually deter municipalities from undertaking thorough investigations and cataloguing complaints against police officers if such records can be released to their detriment when involved in civil rights litigation.”

Quinn did not say whether the city of Worcester, specifically, might not conduct thorough investigations of police misconduct if it loses its case against the T&>. 

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and Police Chief Steven M. Sargent did not immediately respond to requests for comment lodged through spokespeople Monday afternoon. 

Monday’s closing arguments marked the end of a trial in which a judge will rule on whether the city conformed with Public Records Law in its 2018 withholding of police records from the T&>. 

More: Testimony ends in T&> suit over police records

Jeffrey J. Pyle, a lawyer representing the T&>, argued Monday that the city’s argument in the case runs contrary to the intent of the law. 

Pyle noted that should the judge should rule in the city’s favor, the internal affairs records pertaining to any officer would be exempt from release so long as that officer were being sued in court. 

Pyle noted the policy would in effect mean that the only records the public could obtain would be records of officers who are rarely, or never, sued. 

“The city says, ‘You can have the records of the good officers, but not the allegedly bad officers,” Pyle said. “That turns the accountability function of the Public Records Law on its head.” 

Pyle argued that a verdict for the city would have “troubling” implications beyond police records, saying that its logic could be used to withhold other documents routinely created by the government simply because they were relevant to a lawsuit. 

“If the city’s interpretation of (this exemption) were accepted, if you have a pending zoning appeal, the city could hide all the documents about the development project,” he said, adding that payroll records of police might be withheld, as well, in cases of alleged overtime abuse. 

The T&> in court documents notes that the Massachusetts Appeals Court, in a 2003 landmark case between the T&> and Worcester police, held that internal affairs records must be public to inspire public confidence. 

Quinn argued Monday that the present case is different from that and other records cases because it concerns records relating to officers facing civil lawsuits. 

Most of the officers whose records the T&> requested in 2018 are or were at the time of the request facing lawsuits in federal court – lawsuits which, Quinn noted, can potentially be some of the costliest for taxpayers. 

Quinn argued there is a “strong public interest against disclosure,” asserting that disclosure “would interfere with the city’s litigation strategy, decisions with regard to the litigation defense, and a duty to the taxpayers to vigorously defend those lawsuits against the police and against city officials.” 

After hearing both sides make closing arguments Monday, Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker said she would take the matter under advisement. 

Published at Tue, 12 Jan 2021 03:27:00 +0000

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