Tisbury is trying to stonewall the release of public records to The Times, and that should be troubling to the community at large. Not only does state law presume every document created by a government agency is a public record, but the state Supervisor of Public Records has consistently ruled that records involving police officers are public because of the trust that is placed in police officers.
For months, we’ve been asking for an unredacted copy of a 2015 investigation into police officer Mark Santon. We want to see the officers’ names to ensure that the investigation was conducted fairly for all involved and to ensure that there was no special treatment based on who was involved. During that 2015 investigation, the police chief determined that Officer Santon had spread a fabricated story about one of the department leaders saying that police from West Tisbury witnessed a domestic assault that department leader was allegedly involved in. That same investigation found that Officer Santon tampered with a department laptop, changing the preferred language before turning it in.
The Times was troubled that the names of officers were redacted in that report. The town attempted to use an exemption that protects voluntary witnesses from being named in the release of public records. They claimed it would somehow hurt the department’s ability to do future investigations.
On Sept. 18, after months of back-and-forth — and wasted billable hours on the town’s side — we thought we finally had a clear-cut victory.
“In discussing the voluntary status of police officer witnesses, the Supreme Judicial Court distinguishes the testimony of an officer from that of a citizen witness by noting, [a] police officer would be obliged to make an incident report or to respond to questions in the course of a firearms investigation, on pain of otherwise losing his job…,” Supervisor of Public Records Rebecca Murray wrote. “…When examining the public status of the identities of police officers interviewed by the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the City of Boston Police Department, the Court found that “[n]or is there sufficient basis under the privacy exemption to withhold the identities of the police officers interviewed by IAD investigators,” the supervisor wrote.
That’s clear enough, but the supervisor went even further.
“Given this distinction between voluntary, citizen witnesses and police officers providing information in the course of their jobs, the Town has not met its burden in establishing how these police officers voluntarily provided the information rather than providing it in furtherance of their obligations as police officers,” she wrote.
But the town is attempting to run out the clock, hoping The Times will get tired of the game of cat and mouse and go away. We won’t.
In a letter to The Times Oct. 2, Brian Maser, the town’s attorney, again thumbs his nose at the public records law, and the supervisor of public records with an absurd claim that the case cited by the supervisor, which involved the notorious murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart by her husband Charles Stuart, is the reason to deny the records. He specifically cites the widespread publicity surrounding that case.
“The same cannot be said for the 2015 investigation, which you became aware of from a tip following your initial request in May 2014,” Mr. Maser writes on behalf of the town. “The incident that caused the 2015 investigation was not reported on, at all, was not a matter of public concern, and it garnered not a shred of publicity. As such, the identity of the officers who provided the department with information during the course of its review of the incident in 2015 are not subject to disclosure.”
So by Mr. Maser’s skewed logic, as long as a police department can keep the investigation of a police officer spreading a fabricated story quiet, it doesn’t have to worry about public scrutiny. Keep it all hush-hush and if it does leak out, use every means necessary to evade public disclosure.
Officer Santon was suspended for two days in 2015 by the police chief and when he lied again in 2017 during the investigation of how a woman nearly killed herself in the back of his cruiser during an arrest, he was suspended for five days — even though the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association recommends that police officers who are untruthful be terminated.
That’s a pretty good reason for a community newspaper to investigate.
We’re not going to begin to try and speculate on what’s motivating the town in this case, but clearly there’s something big at stake if town leaders, through their attorney, are making this much effort to keep these names in the dark.
This is your law.
The public records law isn’t about newspapers gathering information. While it benefits a free press in being able to perform its duties as a check and balance on government, the law also ensures, for example, that you can go to town hall and check a building permit so you know what your neighbor is planning to do. It’s there to make sure you can look and see how government is spending your money.
The Times can appeal the town’s decision to withhold the names of the police officers — and we will. We just thought it was time to let the public in on just what lengths the town will go to in an effort to keep public records out of the public eye.