Transparency is the first the step to justice. As our country debates the role of police in our communities, it’s important to remember that the public’s right to know about government is a prerequisite to accountability. Citizens must know how their law enforcement agencies operate in order to understand if they are working in the public’s interest.
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Among many other advocacy efforts, NEFAC is testifying in front of lawmakers about the need for transparency, providing webinars on police misconduct and public records, and highlighting the challenges faced by those seeking information about our law enforcement officers. While NEFAC has been the region’s leading advocate for police transparency since the coalition began in 2006, here is a look at our recent efforts in New England.
In an op/ed for Central Maine Newspapers, the Sun Journal and the Bangor Daily News, NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman discusses a recent survey of Maine law enforcement agencies involving access to citizen complaints against officers. Silverman describes the concerning results and what steps can be taken in the future to improve police transparency in the state.
Due to a 2017 decision by the Office of the Attorney General, complaints against law enforcement agencies initiated internally are typically kept secret while complaints made by the public are disclosed. H 6602 would remove this distinction. “Without transparency about internal affairs complaints, the public will not know whether law enforcement agencies are able to police their own effectively,” according to Jan. 25 testimony. “From the standpoint of accountability for alleged misconduct, how can the origin of a complaint matter?”
“We start from the position that the use of body-worn cameras is a welcome measure for holding police officers and police departments accountable as they exercise the police powers of the state,” wrote NEFAC and other members of Access/RI in a Sept. 23 letter to the Office of the Attorney General. “That accountability can only be accomplished if the body-worn cameras are used consistently and the footage they capture is released in a timely manner.” Attorney General Peter Neronha is in the process of establishing a statewide policy for the use and operation of police body-worn cameras.
NEFAC’s Edward Fitzpatrick, a reporter at The Boston Globe, appeared on A Lively Experiment to discuss a new police body camera initiative and when footage should be released. Fitzpatrick and other panelists also spoke about the lack of access to 911 calls in the state. The conversation begins at 11:55.
Gabe Rottman at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains the legal principle of “qualified immunity” and a recent effort to have the U.S. Supreme Court declare the First Amendment right to record police as clearly established. Rottman and his colleagues filed an amicus brief on behalf of NEFAC and other media organizations arguing that lower courts need more guidance on the issue of qualified immunity in right-to-record cases.
NEFAC joined newsrooms throughout the country to help protect the First Amendment right to record police activity. The organizations are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify for all jurisdictions that the constitutional right to record public officials in public areas is “clearly established” under a qualified immunity analysis. “It should be clear beyond cavil by now that first-hand accounts of police conduct are essential to the public conversation about police accountability,” according to an Aug. 13 amicus brief filed in the case Frasier v. Evans.
Attorney Gregory V. Sullivan, a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors, discusses a public records dispute over a report on excessive force allegations against a Canaan police officer. Sullivan filed an amicus brief on behalf of NEFAC and Union Leader Corp. arguing that the report should be made public under the New Hampshire Right to Know Law.
The public’s right to know “what the government is up to” is central and essential to democracy and to the proper administration of justice. Transparency and accountability lead to trust between the citizenry and the government. The need for such trust is critical when the governmental actors are authorized to effectuate arrests and to use force when necessary. The release of the unredacted materials currently under seal in this case will ensure that the citizens of New Hampshire are able to fully assess the conduct of a serving police officer and of the thoroughness and fairness of those entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing police officers.
The coalition wrote to New Hampshire state senators about a bill that would restrict access to police mugshots, calling the proposal “a dangerous and unjustified infringement” upon the public’s right to know and the ability of journalists to report the news. HB 125 classifies police mugshots as investigatory records and exempts them from release under the New Hampshire Right to Know Law.
NEFAC recently legislation that would make secret the towns and cities of residence for Rhode Island police officers. “At a time when citizens throughout the state — and country — are demanding more transparency and accountability within police departments, this legislation will needlessly keep citizens uninformed about the officers patrolling their streets,” wrote NEFAC and the Rhode Island Press Association in a May 17 letter to the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 471 would grant the public access to police certification hearings, providing a level of transparency necessary to keep law enforcement officers accountable to the communities they serve. “The public’s interest in police misconduct is always at an extremely high level,” wrote NEFAC’s Gregory V. Sullivan on behalf of the coalition and the Union Leader Corp on Feb. 6. “An individual officer’s expectation of privacy regarding the performance of his or her official duties cannot reasonably be expected to outweigh the presumption of openness mandated by constitutional and statutory law.”
The New England First Amendment Coalition recently testified on proposed legislation in New Hampshire that could severely limit the public’s right to access police records. Senate Bill 39 intends to exempt police personnel files, internal investigations and other law enforcement records from the New Hampshire Right-to-Know Law. With respect to accessing certain records like public employee personnel, investigatory and disciplinary records, NEFAC explained, the Right-to-Know Law avoids making a categorical declaration in favor of a case-by-case balancing approach. Senate Bill 39 would forego this careful analysis in favor of “a broad, all-encompassing rule that exalts secrecy over transparency,” according to its testimony.
Erin Rhoda, editor at the Bangor Daily News, describes a series of stories she and her colleagues reported that detail the lack of accountability among county sheriffs in Maine.
Evan Allen, a reporter at The Boston Globe, discusses a new database she and her colleagues created to help citizens search misconduct records within the Boston Police Department.
NEFAC’s Gregory V. Sullivan, general counsel to Union Leader Corp., explains a recent New Hampshire Supreme Court decision that could result in the release of a secret list of police officers with credibility issues.
“We’re living in a time where all aspects of reality are being questioned. Everyone seems to have a different perspective, not just politically, but what’s going on in their communities,” Silverman told The Public’s Radio. “And we need journalists out there on the ground documenting things that happen so we have actual evidence and documentation of what’s happening in our streets and how the police are acting or not acting in the public’s interest.”
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, and NEFAC’s Justin Silverman discuss recent protests in and around Providence, and how police are treating members of the press and peaceful demonstrators.
Brad Petrishen of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette discusses his newspaper’s ongoing efforts to obtain Internal Affairs reports and other law enforcement records from the city’s police department.
Derek Brouwer at Seven Days describes an incident at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans and the challenges of reporting on School Resource Officers (SROs) in Vermont.
Jessie Rossman at the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts explains a recent lawsuit against the Boston Police Department for records about use of force incidents and surveillance of citizens. According to the lawsuit, officials have regularly responded to the requests with silence and delay.
The New England First Amendment Coalition appeared before a New Hampshire state commission to recommend ways to increase transparency within law enforcement agencies. “The sunshine these efforts are headed for certainly show the good work that police officers do 99 percent of the time as well as weeding out the bad conduct,” said attorney Gregory V. Sullivan on behalf of the coalition, adding that “it’s not just the bad police officers that we can look at but their supervisors as well.”
NEFAC and National Freedom of Information of Coalition Discuss Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability
A conversation with Dan Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, about efforts across the country to increase transparency within local and state police departments. Dan also provides an update on the continuing challenges to open government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The New England First Amendment Coalition sent a letter to Connecticut lawmakers recommending specific transparency requirements that should be included in recently proposed police accountability legislation. “With those in Connecticut now discussing how law enforcement can best be structured and overseen by the public, this is an opportune time to make meaningful changes to our police departments,” wrote Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, in a July 17 letter to members of the state’s Judiciary Committee.
Paul Cuno-Booth, reporter for the Keene Sentinel, discusses his efforts to obtain Use of Force policies from all law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire and how his public records requests led to two police chiefs reconsidering the use of chokeholds.
Liam Elder-Connors, reporter for Vermont Public Radio, shares a surprising public records response involving the state’s attorney general, discusses efforts to expose police misconduct and talks about an appearance on NPRmageddon.
“Especially now, police departments should be eager to get these policies in the hands of the public, so citizens will know their police officers are acting reasonably,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a transparency advocacy group.
Tara O’Neill, breaking news reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, describes her coverage of the Bridgeport Police Department and the challenges journalists face while trying to report on law enforcement during recent protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The New England First Amendment Coalition, Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and the New Hampshire Press Association presented this recorded webinar on June 26 about recent decisions expanding the public’s right to know about government. Attorneys Richard Gagliuso and Gregory V. Sullivan discuss two positive decisions issued by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire earlier this month that will make it easier for the public to oversee its law enforcement agencies and hold police officers accountable for their actions.
The New England First Amendment Coalition sent a letter to Vermont representatives demanding more transparency within law enforcement agencies and describing changes that could be made to improve public oversight. “During the last several weeks, the issue of police brutality has risen in our national conscience and there now seems to be the political appetite to make necessary reforms to law enforcement policy,” wrote Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, to members of the state’s Senate Government Operations Committee on June 18.
NEFAC’s Dan Barrett, legal director at the ACLU of Connecticut, explains how access to law enforcement records can help us better hold police accountable for their actions and prevent future misconduct.
The New England First Amendment Coalition joined a coalition of transparency advocates across the country to publicize the need for more access to law enforcement records. “More public oversight leads to better policing, which leads to better public safety and stronger communities,” according to a June 12 statement by NEFAC and more than 50 organizations. “A small, but concrete, show of good faith would be for every state to enact reforms opening every aspect of the police misconduct oversight process to public scrutiny. Only by seeing the substance of each complaint, how it is resolved, and what consequences are imposed can the public trust that justice is being dispensed without favor,” the groups wrote.
It’s hard for the public to assess such claims when key parts of the relevant policy are kept hidden, said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a transparency advocacy group. “It’s really difficult to know if police are acting reasonably when it comes to the use of force if we don’t know what their policies are,” he said.
“You know there’s an issue when the Massachusetts State Police is being more transparent than you,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Silverman, whose organization defends and promotes public access to government, said internal affairs reports are crucial to the public’s understanding of whether officers who commit misconduct are being held accountable. “It’s all about the trust that we as citizens can have of our law enforcement, and without knowing of allegations of misconduct and how departments are responding, it’s very difficult to maintain that trust,” Silverman said. Silverman said departments withholding information is common – a dynamic that leaves people wondering about whether they are adequately policing themselves.
“You’re making the whole system more efficient and relieving some of the burden of public record requests from your own system,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Silverman, whose organization defends and promotes public access to government, said he would expect Worcester, at a minimum, to be posting its arrest records online. “Worcester is a major city that we should expect these things from,” he said. “In fact, we should expect police logs to be posted online for every municipality.