By Robert J. Ambrogi
In June 2012, the police chief of the city of Waltham, Thomas LaCroix, was arrested on charges of assaulting his wife at the couple’s home in Maynard. He later resigned as chief after he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 18 months probation.
Under a bill passed by the Massachusetts House this week, the public might never have known about LaCroix’s arrest or might only have learned about it many months later. The bill would prohibit public access to all police logs and police reports involving domestic violence.
The bill – passed by the House April 8 on a unanimous roll call vote – is a sweeping response to recent news reports involving the stabbing death of Jennifer Martel last year allegedly by Jared Remy, the son of Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy. Among other things, it would toughen penalties for domestic abuse, impose delays on the release of domestic abuse suspects, and require more training for police, judges and court personnel.
Two provisions of the bill (House Bill 4034) specifically block access to police records and logs. One, Section 97D, says:
[A]ll reports of abuse perpetrated by family or house members . . . and all communications between police officers and victims of such offenses or abuse shall not be public reports and shall be maintained by the police departments in a manner which will assure their confidentiality . . .
The other, Section 98F, carves out an exemption to the general rule that police logs are open to the public:
[A]ny information concerning responses to reports of domestic violence, rape or sexual assault, or any entry concerning the arrest of a person for assault, assault and battery, or violation of a protective order where the victim is a family or household member . . . shall be kept in a separate log and shall not be a public record nor shall such entry be disclosed to the public.
Advocates of closing police records say it will encourage more victims to report domestic violence. “They will know they can call the police without fear of it becoming public,” Linda Cavaioli, executive director of the Worcester YWCA, told the Telegram & Gazette. “I think one of the intentions is to remove a barrier of fear of retaliation.”
However, a blanket veil on domestic abuse reports would have the unintended consequence of also protecting domestic abuse suspects and perpetrators. As the Waltham police chief case demonstrates, suspects in domestic abuse cases will sometimes be public officials and others who hold positions of public trust. When public officials are accused of domestic violence, it is a serious matter and the public deserves to know.
Even when the suspect is not a public figure, there may be cases where the abuser is a danger not only to the immediate victim, but also to others in the community. Here again, the public deserves to know when there is a potentially dangerous person in the community.
In fact, the Jared Remy case — the case that reportedly inspired this bill — offers ample evidence that greater transparency about perpetrators of domestic violence — not greater secrecy — is what is needed to protect victims from repeated assaults.
The news media has a long track record of exercising discretion and restraint in reporting on sensitive issues such as domestic abuse and sexual assault. News organizations have self-imposed policies against reporting the identities of sexual-assault victims.
While the legislature should be commended for tackling the difficult issue of domestic violence, there is no demonstrated need to shut down police records. In fact, to my knowledge, there is no evidence that open police records discourage victims from reporting domestic violence or that closing the records encourages reporting. Nothing of the kind was alleged in the Remy case — Martel did, in fact, call the police.
Although I believe this language should be removed from the bill entirely, at a minimum, it should be amended to allow the logs to remain public — including the name of alleged perpetrator — while shielding only the name of the alleged victim.
As written, the bill presumes that domestic violence is exclusively a private matter. But when the abuser is a public figure or poses a danger to others in the community, the public has the right to know.
Robert is executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publisher’s Association.