It might be surprising — shocking, even — for the average person to learn that a police officer with tainted credibility could still be called to the witness stand to testify in a case in Massachusetts.
That’s because not all prosecutors in the state maintain so-called exclusion lists to keep track of cops who have engaged in or have been accused of serious misconduct, such as lying or making up false police reports, racial bias, and other questionable behavior. WBUR recently reported that three of the 11 district attorney’s offices in the state keep such lists. Of those, two — the DAs of Middlesex and Norfolk counties — released them publicly, while the Suffolk DA declined to do so. According to WBUR, five district attorney offices do not keep such police lists: Bristol, Essex, Plymouth, Worcester, and the Cape and Islands counties. Of the remaining three offices, the Berkshire DA said it is in the process of creating a cop disclosure list; Northampton’s DA said they are studying the issue; and Hampden County’s office does not have a list but says that its prosecutors vet police witnesses on a case-by-case basis.
Keeping these lists and disclosing them to the public serves as a powerful tool for police accountability. It’s why advocates for criminal justice reform have pushed for them all over the country and reform-minded prosecutors have made adopting the practice a top priority. The reason is quite simple: Public trust in the criminal justice system — and in the belief that everyone deserves and gets a fair trial — depends on cops’ truthfulness. If they behave dishonestly and without consequences, they will continue to misbehave.
After years of distrust and lack of accountability, having a process to identify law enforcement officers with credibility problems is a surefire way to build back that confidence in a system of policing and prosecution that too often is racially biased. “It’s important for the public to know what police officers are doing,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency.
To be clear, Massachusetts law does not require prosecutor offices to compile or disclose these lists. But a landmark US Supreme Court decision in 1963, Brady v. Maryland, mandated that prosecutors to turn over evidence favorable to a defendant, which might sometimes include the names of officers unfit to testify against the accused because of the officers’ damaged credibility.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who ran as a reform-minded candidate two years ago, told the Globe editorial board before her election that her office was “going to be keeping lists” of officers who commit wrongdoings, or Brady-Giglio lists, as they are known, after the legal cases that prompted these policies. Yet Rollins declined to provide Suffolk County’s list to WBUR, citing an exemption to the state’s public records law.
In a statement to the Globe editorial board, Rollins said her staff “is currently in the process of updating our ‘Brady/Giglio’ database and our relevant policies. Our goal is balancing transparency and fairness with holding those in a special place of trust and honor accountable for their actions.” Rollins said that “wrongdoing by individuals in a special position of trust will not be tolerated.” She said her office will make the Suffolk County Brady list public on Sept. 25.
In a welcome breath of transparency, Middlesex County DA Marian Ryan released a list of more than 100 officers, even including some who are not cops anymore. The scope of police misconduct shows the value of releasing the compilation, not just to keep these officers off the witness stand — but as a form of police accountability as well. Here’s a sample of the behaviors: stealing evidence money (a Framingham police officer); changing police reports without authorization (an Ayer officer); abusing overtime (Medford police department); writing inaccurate information in a report or search warrant (at least three Lowell cops); and charges of assault and battery (a State Police trooper).
Massachusetts residents deserve to know when a prosecutor considers a law enforcement officer untrustworthy. It’s not merely a fair practice to ban those cops from testifying in courtrooms. Every time a cop lies, steals, or abuses the power of the uniform and ends up getting away with it, it damages the bedrock of trust that our criminal justice system is built upon.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.