Updated at 4:49 p.m. April 27
A group of law enforcement unions and associations are suing a state task force charged with creating mandatory certification standards for police officers, investigating misconduct allegations and disciplining officers.
Three plaintiffs allege the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, or POST Commission, “rubber stamped” into policy new rules limiting law enforcement without open public meetings required under state law, including a questionnaire to be administered to new and existing police officers. The plaintiffs are seeking a court order to release information about those private meetings, as well as to stop all recommendations, advice or “work products” created by subcommittees of the commission.
Officer Scott Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, Sgt. Jeanne Carroll, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and Detective Donald Caisey, president of the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, jointly filed the suit in Suffolk Superior Court on Wednesday.
They said the complaint demonstrates how the “POST Commission created subcommittees that have illegally performed their work in total secrecy — without any notice to the public and without any public involvement or observation.”
The appointed nine-member POST Commission was established under policing reform legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 31, 2020.
Enrique Zuniga, executive director of the commission, said that the task force is reviewing the complaint.
“The POST Commission strongly believes that it has complied at all times with the Open Meeting law,” he said in a statement.
POST Commission meetings are publicly accessible through Zoom, and the recordings are available online after, along with agendas and presentations. It is unclear if subcommittee meetings, which are the ones targeted by the lawsuit, are publicly available.
The policing reform legislation aimed to enhance transparency and accountability, but plaintiffs said the opposite is happening.
One of the “work products” created by a subcommittee is a questionnaire the commission recently required police departments commonwealth-wide to fill out by June 30 in order to recertify officers. Officers are required to answer questions about past social media comments that might be perceived as biased against anyone based on their race, sexual orientation and immigration status, and whether they’re current on all tax payments, according to the questionnaire, which was acquired by GBH News.
Officers are also asked whether they’ve been involved in any investigations focused on “excessive force,” like the chokehold used on Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who was killed in 2014 by a New York City police officer.
The open records argument presents a pathway to at least temporarily lift the requirement that police fill out questionnaires about their histories, which will determine how their careers will continue.
“The questionnaire is bad enough. It makes things worse — and illegal — that a good deal of the work on this offensive questionnaire was done in secret, and in violation of the Open Meeting Law," the plaintiffs said in an emergency filing for a quick decision from the judge.
The plaintiffs want a judge to order the commission to ‘“immediately and in the future comply with the Open Meeting Law,” and to make public all meeting minutes, records and other materials from the illegal meetings of the subcommittees.”’
The plaintiffs requested records of the meetings in January. The commission denied that request for documents, saying their request was too broad.
The POST Commission’s work is multifaceted, but entirely focused on accountability of law enforcement. The group works with the Massachusetts Police Training Committee to create standards for training new officers and implementing them.
The POST Commission is in the middle of creating a public database of disciplinary records that will showcase redacted disciplinary complaints and their outcomes for ongoing investigations, and un-redacted information for officers’ whose investigations are already completed.
POST will also track if those officers moved on to other police departments, and for those whose cases are still pending, will decide how to proceed on whether they should be certified as police officers any longer.
Under law, the disciplinary records had to be collected by Sept. 30, 2021, but that got extended to Dec. 31 because of the coronavirus pandemic and short-staffing. Over 800 disciplinary records had been collected by the end of December, with over 40 from the state police, according to an interview with director Zuniga in December.
Plaintiffs didn’t reply to requests for interviews, but issued a joint statement via email.
“The people of Massachusetts deserve — and the laws of the Commonwealth demand — an open and transparent public process in the development and implementation of policy, rules, requirements, and practices governing police standards and training. The Post Commission has violated the public’s trust, disregarded and broken the Open Meeting Law, and betrayed the very principles upon which the Massachusetts police reform act of 2020 was based,” they wrote.
This story was updated with additional details about the questionnaire.