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Mass. will soon post complaints against police officers online. But some will be missing

Close-up of an officer's badge with the police lights on the car flashing in the background. (Getty Images)
Close-up of an officer's badge with the police lights on the car flashing in the background. (Getty Images)

Massachusetts plans to launch a new online database later this month with thousands of complaints against law enforcement officers across the state. But some information will be missing, according to the people who compiled the records.

The database, a first for Massachusetts, was a key requirement of the criminal justice law passed after protests against police brutality rocked the country two years ago.

The head of the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which is compiling the data, said making the list public is important to show residents that agencies are holding police accountable for misconduct.

“I think people will feel that their complaints are noticed,” said Enrique Zuniga, the commission’s executive director. “That’s an important part of enhancing trust.”

Still, Zuniga acknowledged the database won’t include every single allegation filed against officers in the commonwealth.

More than a dozen agencies still haven’t submitted their data to the state yet. Some departments have only provided complaints for the last few years, even though some officers have worked in the state for decades. And the commission plans to deliberately leave out complaints that are still under investigation.

The commission has already run into challenges compiling the data from hundreds of departments.

The agency would like to include complaints against officers for their entire career in the state. But many officers have worked for more than one department, forcing the commission to combine records from multiple agencies.

That work is made even more difficult because the commission asked police departments to identify officers by first and last name when they submitted the complaint data. But many officers share common names. For example, at least 11 Massachusetts officers are named Michael Murphy, including four who work for the state police alone. The commission hopes to avoid accidentally attributing a complaint to a different officer with the same name.

“We recognize that there will be, perhaps, inconsistencies to what we publish,” Zuniga said. “We will continue to do more necessary data cleanup, or disambiguation, or even updating as we go along.”

The commission says the database will include basic information about formal complaints filed with police departments, including the name of the officer, the date and nature of the complaint and codes showing the outcome of the investigation.

Dracut Police Chief Peter Bartlett said he isn’t sure it’s even realistic for the commission to compile the history of complaints against every officer since they began working in the state. Local police departments are generally only required to keep complaint records for seven years after an investigation is completed under state guidelines.

“They may want that in theory, but I think that even the data of what’s available for records may not be complete going back years and years,” Bartlett said. He said his department has records going back to 2004. Some other departments said they only had records for the last few years.

There could also be errors in the data. New Bedford Police already acknowledged the data it originally sent to the state for one officer was inaccurate. The error only came to light because a local news organization, the New Bedford Light, published a copy of the department’s submission and the officer pointed out the mistake.

Some other police chiefs have other concerns. Bridgewater Police Chief Chris Delmonte worries the database could tarnish the reputation of officers who’ve been the target of complaints, even if they were minor or unfounded.

“I think it has the potential to unfairly give an officer that scarlet letter,” he said.

Delmonte said officers must make split-second decisions under pressure, and some mistakes are bound to happen. But he said he still supports the commission’s goal to hold officers accountable.

So does Leominster Police Department Chief Aaron Kennedy.

“We’re an open book, I got nothing to hide,” Kennedy said. “If someone screws up they’re gonna have to pay the penalty.”

The commission hopes to launch the database as early as May 20.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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