In what is described as “routine and legitimate” records management by Tisbury Police Chief Chris Habekost, the Tisbury Police Department has destroyed 70 boxes of its own records. The records date from 1950 to 2015 and include everything from internal investigations and employment documentation to arrest reports and motor vehicle citations.
Destruction of the records was initiated in the spring of 2019 by former Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio and completed under Chief Habekost. The chiefs eliminated these records at a time when the department faced multiple lawsuits and a sweeping discovery order tied to two criminal matters in Edgartown District Court. In the district court matters, concern developed because the department’s records destruction campaign didn’t appear to stop after a motion was filed to compel the production of Tisbury Police records and after hearings were held relative to that motion.
On Nov. 22, with the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office under threat of sanctions for failure to provide discovery material relative to two OUI cases, defense attorney Ryan Searle pressed Tisbury Police Lt. Bill Brigham to admit the department began destroying records after she filed a motion seeking records in October of 2020. However, Lt. Brigham described the department’s destruction of records as a “purging” that was “in process” when the motion was filed. Lt. Brigham later made it clear the records destruction started before receiving Searle’s motion or any relative orders from the court.
A review of state forms obtained by The Times through public records requests and verified through the state archivist show the Tisbury Police Department did indeed have destruction underway before records were sought through a defense motion. Furthermore, the forms indicate the records the department destroyed were older than the records sought in Searle’s discovery motion.
Massachusetts municipal record retention schedules dictate when, if ever, a police department can get rid of public records. Some records like protective custody reports need only be retained three years while police blotters and murder reports must be retained permanently.
Among the three down-Island police departments which are the Vineyard’s largest, the Tisbury Police Department isn’t alone in its elimination of police records. Documentation obtained by The Times from the state archivist shows both the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs police departments have destroyed a sizable amount of records. However, unlike in Tisbury, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs eliminated records in bulk many years ago and have not done so since, according to Chiefs Bruce McNamee and Erik Blake. In 1987, under Chief George Searle, the Edgartown Police Department was granted permission from the state’s supervisor of records to destroy 68 cubic feet of records dating from 1964 to 1985. In 2005, under Chief Blake, the Oak Bluffs Police Department sought similar permission to destroy 11 cubic feet of records dating from 1970 to 2003.
The Tisbury Police Department appears to have sat on most of its accumulated records until Chief Saloio took over the department. This appears to have included holding onto motor vehicle citations even though they are only required to be retained for a year.
Months worth of citations, along with police reports and CAD reports, were targeted in Searle’s discovery motion. The motion seeks to garner records that identify race or ethnicity in an attempt to show racial bias may have tainted the motor vehicle stop process for Searle’s clients, Josuel Desouza and Eugene Jemison. Desouza and Jemison were pulled over on separate dates by Tisbury Police and charged with operating with a suspended license for drinking and driving and for drinking and driving, respectively.
Per her motion, Searle sought and received months of records pertaining to stops made by the officer who pulled Desouza and Jemison over.
Lt. Brigham testified in November that it took him about 20 hours to compile those records. In another part of her motion Searle sought similar records from all other members of the department, 13 full-timers. “It would take the same amount of time for each officer, roughly 20 hours, and that’s in between, you know, my regular duties at the department,” Brigham testified.
Searle took issue with the burden that the prosecution argued the discovery request created.
“They’ve had 14 months to comply with this but they’ve done nothing it seems because they came in here today and said it would be too burdensome,” she said.
Searle, prosecutor Matt Palazzolo, and District Court Judge Benjamin Barnes all agreed that back in May a representative of the Tisbury Police Department failed to show up in court and either produce the requested discovery records or explain why the records wouldn’t be produced.
Searle told the court she found it telling that the department allegedly began compiling certain racial statistics the day after she filed her discovery motion.
Judge Barnes questioned why the department apparently hadn’t made even a modest effort to assemble records on the department’s other officers. Given the time that elapsed since the motion was filed, the judge said the police department could have handily satisfied the discovery request by expending as little as an hour a day gathering records.
Palazzolo argued such effort would have been wasted if the court ruled the discovery wasn’t warranted. He also said assembling municipal records can be a ponderous process.
“I would suggest technology for state employees can be cumbersome and archaic at times,” Palazzolo said. Palazzolo said the lieutenant’s testimony indicated compiling the records was a laborious process.
Judge Barnes ultimately narrowed the scope of Searle’s discovery. In part this was done by reducing the number of police officer records to be produced from 13 to between 9 and 10.
He set a Feb. 10 compliance date for the Desouza and Jemison cases.
Chief Saloio previously told The Times that the state of the records system he encountered when he came to the department in 2018 was problematic. Saloio described filing less indicative of the “archaic” label Palazzolo used and more indicative of being “ponderous”— another of Palazzolo’s descriptors.
“When I first came here, the records’ filing system was unorganized and in disarray,” Saloio wrote in a March 22 email. “This includes internal affairs files. As part of our initiated protocols and regrouping here, as well as getting things moving in a different direction under my tenure, we began examining what records we possessed, why we possessed them, and whether we still actually needed to possess them. I requested permission via the Secretary of State’s Office, as is required, for the destruction of assorted records within the police department, to include internal affairs records. This was to simply clean up an abundance of old files going back to the 1980’s in some cases. I also directed all our agency’s records to be stored properly in a secured area. This has been accomplished and it was not without a significant amount of time and effort.”
Saloio’s response came following a steady tide of records requests made by The Times, notably for internal investigation reports. Saloio suggested the records requests may have helped in establishing a greater degree of orderliness in the department’s files.
“[A]t some point, after I received permission to destroy internal affairs records, I began to receive numerous requests from [The Times] pertaining to assorted IA files. As the requests became more frequent, I decided that though I had legal permission to destroy the files from the Secretary of State’s Office, I was not going to do so until the volume of IA records’ requests from [The Times] passed. I just didn’t think it would be a good thing to do from an ethical standpoint, although it would have been in fact a legal thing to do. Not knowing what records, [The Times] may or may not end up requesting, led me to hold off for a bit. In fact, the volume of your requests has assisted us in better organizing our records. IA files were kept in different areas. Presently, IA files are filed securely in my office only, which is where they should be. There has never been, and never will be while I am here, an attempt to withhold anything from [The Times] that is legally releasable. I was dealing with a system I inherited, not one in which I initiated.”
Other factors Saloio pointed to that curbed the destruction of department records, at least internal affairs records, were an impending certification standards review — one that led to the department getting certification from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission — and the requirement that internal affairs (and disciplinary) records be submitted to the POST Commission, one of the fruits of the Massachusetts Police Reform Act.
After Saloio left the department in July of 2021, some disarray still appeared to dog Tisbury’s police records. In a Jan. 7 determination based on an appeal made by The Times over a time and a fee calculation to produce material focused on the T.M. Silvia police racism affairs, the state’s Supervisor of Records called out the Town of Tisbury for charging to sort through its disordered files.
“Please be advised that the town cannot charge a requestor for the time it takes to search for responsive records based on the organization and management of its records,” the determination states. “Public records must be maintained and kept in a manner that allows access by the public, as they are subject to mandatory disclosure upon request.”
The same month Saloio left the department, he made a second bid to get rid of department records. This second request revolved around a single box of citizens complaints and disciplinary files. The supervisor approved the request for destruction on July 28, 2020. In an email to The Times, Lt Brigham noted the contents of this box were destroyed. The process of destroying the contents of that box, as well as the contents of a great number of other boxes, was done inside the department at the sluggish pace an office shredder would eat the documents it was fed.
“We continued with the destruction of the 70 boxes of old records located in our 3rd floor records area which was authorized by the SPR on April 23rd, 2019…,” Brigham wrote.. “Initially we began this process in-house with our shredder which was a very slow process. The first 40 boxes, as well as, the one box from the July 28th, 2020 request were processed in this manner.”
Ultimately the department decided to farm out the rest of the work and shipped 30 boxes of records off to Northeast Data Destruction in Mansfield for disposal. The documents were shipped off in September of 2021, about a year after Searle filed her motion for discovery.
However, based on the age of the records shown on the two forms submitted to the Supervisor of Records, all the records that were destroyed were older than the records Searle sought. Brigham later told The Times the department had complied with Searle’s discovery motion and provided all the officers’ records to the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office.
The Times asked Chief Habekost a number of questions about records destruction including whether or not copies of destroyed disciplinary and internal investigation records were retained, whether the department feared it was erasing its history in destroying records, and whether the department was hampering its ability to track its progress by destroying records. In an emailed response, Habekost answered a portion of the questions posed.
“Sometimes it becomes necessary for a public agency to dispose of old, outdated, and obsolete records, this is a routine and legitimate function of records management,” he wrote. “There is limited space in municipal buildings and proper records disposal is necessary to ensure appropriate use of these buildings, as well as to maintain sufficient organization of the records. Regarding records disposal at the Tisbury Police Department from 2019-2021, I have made the following determination: old records were checked against the Municipal Records Retention Schedule published by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, and written permission was obtained from the Supervisor of Records at the Massachusetts [Secretary of State’s] Office prior to any records being disposed of. I’m also confident that any records of historical significance were preserved. Therefore, it is my conclusion that this activity was legally authorized, proper, and necessary.”