Watertown Police Department stubbornly refuses electronic public records requests
Despite repeated appeals to reason and official state guidance, the Watertown Police Department stubbornly refuses to step into 2013 and accept electronic public records requests. Nor, apparently, will the department’s records chief even respond to electronic requests to direct their resubmission in another form.
The citizens of Watertown and of the entire Commonwealth deserve access to their public documents by means that are both straightforward and which entail minimal difficulty. In the 21st century, that means being able to request records electronically.
Having submitted five records requests since May to the Watertown police records unit – including one on behalf of the Pioneer Institute – without receiving any reply, MuckRock sent a direct message to the department on September 18 to confirm that the submission contact information was correct. Captain Thomas Rocca of the Bureau of Administrative Services responded in a terse September 19 email:
Records request may be sent by mail, fax or in person.
Given MuckRock’s extensive experience with the Massachusetts public records law, we knew this to be incorrect.
Rocca’s position runs entirely contrary to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s guidance on public records, which is clear on this point: “Written requests may be made by mail, facsimile or email.”
Even when faced with Secretary Galvin’s guidance, Captain Rocca insists that his department can reject requests for public documents as it sees fit. In a September 23 email, Rocca wrote that “there is no statutory mandate for our agency to accept email request for public records,” but that his department is working towards “evaluating and creating a policy and procedure for possibly accepting email submissions.”
It is important to note three facts in this case. First, the Watertown Police Department has previously accepted emailed records requests, as recently as this past April, when Captain Rocca himself rejected a MuckRock request that was submitted electronically. Second, the Watertown police records unit failed to provide notification that any of the five requests MuckRock has submitted since May need to be resubmitted by mail, fax or in-person delivery. Only upon persistent followup did Captain Rocca outline his position that emailed requests were invalid.
Finally, the website for Rocca’s records unit included minimal guidance regarding submission of public records requests or the ban on electronic requests. It was only after repeated MuckRock requests to be pointed to a posting of Captain Rocca’s submission guidelines that this information was added to the site.
At issue here is more than mere convenience. It is a public official’s contradiction of the Massachusetts public records policy, as well as of the public’s right to transparent, responsive government agencies. MuckRock has submitted an appeal of the Watertown Police Department’s to the Supervisor of Public Records, and will continue to press all government officials across the Commonwealth to respect citizens’ rights to public documents created with their tax dollars.
Want to learn more about public records law in Massachusetts and nationwide, or submit your own request for government documents? Check out MuckRock for help with all of your freedom of information requests and questions.