Privacy SOS

We love lawsuits, but we shouldn’t have had to file this one


Photo credit.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has put open data at the center of his administration’s agenda. Transparency, the Mayor recognizes, is a prerequisite for a functioning democratic society. That’s why it’s particularly strange to find that his police department, under the leadership of Commissioner Bill Evans, has failed to abide by the (pathetically weak) Massachusetts public records law when it comes to stop and frisk data.
 
A little background is required in order to understand how the curtains have been pulled down over at One Schroeder Plaza.
 
Last October, we at the ACLU in Boston released a report called Black, Brown, and Targeted, based on the Boston Police Department’s stop, interrogation, and frisk data. The records showed that police stop black and brown Bostonians at rates disproportionate to their population. Despite the protests of the perennial internet commenters who seem to think that melanin correlates to criminality, that disproportionality did not go away when the data was adjusted for crime rates by neighborhood. The police department criticized our report in the press, which was to be expected, given that their own data reflected badly on the department.
 
We disagreed with lots of their criticisms, but the BPD was right to say that there was a major problem with our report: it was based on old information. That's because the data the BPD made available to us covered the period 2007-2010. In the 21st century, when information moves faster and more easily than ever before, that was insufficient and unacceptable.

Presumably, the BPD thought more recent information about its stop and frisk practices would better inform the public about the department's conduct. We thought so too. That’s why last year, we asked for data about post-2010 stops and frisks. But the BPD didn’t give it to us.
 
Here at the ACLU, we aren’t in the business of giving up easily, or taking "maybe someday" for an answer when we ask for public records (keyword public). So nearly a year ago, before we published our report on racial bias in Boston policing, we submitted a public records request to the Boston Police Department, asking for updated stop and frisk data (called “field interrogation and observation” or FIO reports, in police parlance). Eleven months passed, and still, despite the BPD’s public criticism of our 2014 analysis as outdated, we didn’t see one single stop and frisk report.
 
The police claimed to want to have a more accurate, up to date public debate about their stop and frisk practices, but when asked for the information that would shed light onto those practices, they failed to give it up. That kind of smoke and mirrors might work wonders on a friendly city press, but it doesn’t have any legal significance.
 
So today we filed suit against the Boston Police Department, asking a court to order the BPD to produce these records once and for all. We love lawsuits here at the ACLU, but it shouldn’t take one to get our hands on public information, especially if it's data the BPD has already promised to release. After all, we're talking about a city run by a Mayor who has put open data and government transparency at the top of his list of priorities and accomplishments.
 
If Mayor Walsh and the Boston Police want to score a major win with communities that care about civil rights, government transparency, and racial justice, they should do what they could have done last year and start making FIO data public automatically, as they admirably do with other police records, including crime incident reports. Those reports are available on the city’s open data website, where anyone—yes, you!—can peruse them at their leisure.
 
Until then, we’ll just keep filing lawsuits—because in Massachusetts, with among the weakest public records laws in the nation, that seems to be what it takes to access information that's rightfully ours.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.