Boston Police Must Comply With Public Records Law, Judge Rules

Police Accountability, Racial Justice

In a case of first impression, a Suffolk Superior Court judge has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) pattern and practice of violating the Massachusetts Public Records Law may proceed. The lawsuit, brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights (“LCR”) and David Godkin, from Birnbaum & Godkin LLP, alleges that BPD routinely fails to respond to public records requests in the timeframes required by law, and asks for a Court order mandating that BPD comply with the law in the future.

In June 2019, LCR filed the lawsuit after BPD repeatedly failed to produce public records for substantial stretches of time. At issue most recently was a January 2019 record request in which LCR sought records that were critical to ascertaining the racial impact of BPD’s employment practices. Although the Public Records Law generally requires that records be produced in 10 business days, BPD delayed for more than 116 business days, forcing LCR to take the matter to Court. The lawsuit alleged that BPD regularly flouts the law, citing numerous other instances of untimely responses. BPD moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that a public agency cannot be held accountable in court for an ongoing and consistent pattern of failing to comply with the Public Records Law.

In his decision allowing LCR’s lawsuit to proceed, Superior Court Judge Robert L. Ullman aptly highlighted the integral role that timely public records play in increasing government transparency and empowering the public to hold government accountable. The Court also noted that “the irreparable harm caused by delay may be greater [in LCR’s case], because there are only limited times during the year when members of the public may advocate to the BPD for changes in policies and practices related to racial and gender equality…[and] LCR has permanently been denied [that] opportunity….”

Although federal judges have allowed similar pattern-or-practice lawsuits under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Judge Ullman’s ruling is believed to be the first such case under Massachusetts’ public records law. “This decision confirms the critical importance of timely compliance with our Commonwealth’s public records law. It puts BPD and other public agencies on notice that they cannot cast aside the public’s right to information and that they will be held accountable for their failure to comply with the law,” said Sophia Hall, Supervising Attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Decision attached.