Police Abuse

Massachusetts District Attorney Sued for Refusing To Release Names of Problem Cops

Massachusetts reformed its notoriously bad public records laws in 2020, but reporters are still fighting to get the police misconduct files they're legally entitled to.


An independent reporter is suing a district attorney's office in Massachusetts for refusing to release the names of police officers whose misconduct records raise potential credibility issues.

The case illustrates the decrepit state public records laws in Massachusetts, despite recent reforms. And it is a small part of a larger legal battle by journalists and advocacy groups to pry free police misconduct records playing out in New York, California, and other states across the country.

Andrew Quemere, a prolific records requester who publishes The Mass Dump newsletter, filed a lawsuit in state court against the Northwestern District Attorney's Office earlier this month. Quemere was seeking the office's "Brady list"—a list of police officers whose misconduct records could affect the credibility of their testimony and must be disclosed to defense attorneys. The office released 30 such disclosure letters but redacted the officers' names, as well as docket numbers for criminal cases associated with the officers, arguing the information is protected under a privacy exemption in the state public records law.

"[Northwestern District Attorney] David Sullivan publishes press releases with the names of people he charged with crimes on his website, but he doesn't want you to know the names of police officers who have been charged," Quemere said in a press release. 

According to the redacted disclosure letters, the officers' misconduct included perjury, filing false reports, taking bribes, forwarding bigoted emails, domestic assault, and possession of child pornography.

Massachusetts was known for having some of the worst public records laws in the country, and despite reforms in 2016, it is still notoriously hard for reporters and members of the public to get records. In 2020, the Massachusetts Legislature passed policing reforms that included clarifying that police misconduct investigations were not personnel records subject to the privacy exemption.

But some police departments in the state slow-rolled or simply ignored requests for these supposedly public records, and there were few ways to fight back. Quemere filed three appeals to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, which found that the Northwestern District Attorney's Office was not justified in withholding the records. However, the office has no enforcement power.

"This lawsuit shows the need for the Legislature to step up and strengthen the public records law so it deters this behavior," Quemere said.

In a statement to Boston.com, the Northwestern D.A.'s office said it "believes that law enforcement officers do not forfeit their right to privacy by virtue of their profession."

"Regardless of whose information is being sought, our Office routinely withholds or redacts records to guard against invasions of privacy, public embarrassment and reputational damage," the statement continued. "We do not afford law enforcement officers any special privilege in this regard."

Quemere noted that a judge recently ruled that the city of Worcester illegally withheld records about police misconduct and advanced bad-faith legal arguments in court, dragging out a fight with a local newspaper for three years at taxpayer expense.

"Now a district attorney is doing the same thing," Quemere said. "We shouldn't have to fight the same battles over and over again to access public information."

Unfortunately, that fight is playing out in states across the country. In New York, police unions have been trying to claw back disciplinary records after the state repealed a notorious secrecy law in 2020. A group of journalists and activists had to file a class-action lawsuit to force Oakland to comply with changes to California's records law that made police misconduct files public.