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Walsh administration refuses to release internal affairs files of embattled police commissioner

The state has previously said the city failed to meet the legal threshold in denying the public access to the records

Dennis White was sworn in last month by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as the 43rd commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Days later, Walsh suspended him and launched an outside inquiry after allegations that White shoved and threatened to shoot his former wife 22 years ago resurfaced.
Dennis White was sworn in last month by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as the 43rd commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Days later, Walsh suspended him and launched an outside inquiry after allegations that White shoved and threatened to shoot his former wife 22 years ago resurfaced.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After a rebuke from the state’s public records office, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration doubled down Friday, refusing to release decades-old internal affairs records about embattled Police Commissioner Dennis White at least until the city completes its own administrative probe.

The Walsh administration made its position clear in response to an order earlier this week from the supervisor of public records, who had ruled the city had failed to meet the legal threshold in denying the public access to records about the commissioner. Walsh suspended White in early February, just days after appointing him, once allegations resurfaced that White shoved and threatened to shoot his former wife 22 years ago.

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An attorney for the Walsh administration argued Friday that the release of any of White’s records “at this time would compromise” an inquiry the city launched after the Globe unearthed the allegations in White’s past. But the administration, in a letter to the newspaper and the state, did not explain how the release of records — some dating back to 1993 — would impede the city’s efforts.

The Globe requested White’s internal affairs files the day of his surprise appointment in late January. The records detail internal affairs investigations from 1993 for allegedly improper use of force and from a 1999 inquiry that appears to have coincided with the domestic violence accusations.

The department refused to release White’s internal affairs files, and the Globe appealed to Supervisor of Records Rebecca S. Murray.

In a ruling on Tuesday, Murray gave the Walsh administration 10 business days to explain how the release of 28-year-old records would “so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement” that the “disclosure would not be in the public interest.” The city’s response did not directly address that aspect of the order.

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The supervisor’s order is the most recent public records ruling against the nation’s oldest police force, which has often been slow or reluctant to release public records. The department recently pledged to usher in a new era of transparency and accountability.

Until late Friday, the department had ignored for two months another supervisor’s order to explain why the city wouldn’t release files from a 1995 internal affairs investigation into sexual or domestic violence involving a former police union president now charged with molesting children. And the department has also refused to release a pair of 10-year-old investigations into use of force, arguing the cases are under appeal.

The recent controversy over the department’s transparency around White’s past has stoked divisions in the police force, sparked public disagreements within the commissioner’s family, and dogged Walsh in what are likely his final days in office.

The mayor has said he was unaware of the allegations when he appointed White and he immediately placed the commissioner on leave as the city launched an outside review. The Walsh administration used that review to justify withholding White’s internal affairs files.

The Globe plans to again appeal the city’s response.

The administration has not issued a deadline for its review, which is being handled by an outside law firm. It also hasn’t detailed the scope of the investigation, and whether it covers domestic violence allegations, the department’s handling of them, or the city’s appointment of White.

The city’s stance could change because Walsh, who is eager to conclude the review of White’s appointment, is expected to leave office in the coming days to become US secretary of labor.

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In Massachusetts, government agencies have long used a variety of tactics to slow the release of documents and often face few consequences for it.

“They know that if they delay long enough, even if you get [the records], it won’t be of use to you,” said Howard Friedman, a civil rights attorney who specializes in police misconduct cases and has sued the Boston police for records.

The advocacy organization Lawyers for Civil Rights has a pending lawsuit seeking a court order to force the police department to comply with public records deadlines.

“In many instances, I’ve had to wait a year and not gotten anything,” said Sophia L. Hall, who filed the lawsuit. “I sue them and then I get what I need, but that’s not a timely manner to get information.”

Before being appointed commissioner, White served on a police reform task force whose recommendations, subsequently adopted by the department, included releasing information about officers’ conduct and setting timelines for the release of records.

Walsh’s spokesman, Nick Martin, lauded the administration’s push to increase transparency, writing in an e-mail that the mayor “has done more to pursue and enact police reform in Boston than any previous administration.” Martin noted that Walsh embraced all of the task force’s recommendations, which are now being implemented. The department, however, has already missed some of the deadlines set by the task force.

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Police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle said the department “receives a high volume of public records requests and we answer them as best as we can.”

Earlier this week, the department released 36 batches of internal affairs files requested by the Globe in January. The department withheld records from other internal affair inquiries, including documents from two improper use of force cases that were 11 years old. (Boyle said those cases are currently in the appeals process.)

And then there is the case of retired patrolman and police union president Patrick Rose, who last summer pleaded not guilty to molesting a number of children as far back as the 1990s. In October, the Globe sought a 1995 internal affairs case in which investigators determined Rose broke the law.

The department denied the Globe’s request, citing a law that protects victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The newspaper appealed, and the supervisor ordered the department to better explain why the records should remain secret. For two months, the department has ignored the order and follow-up demands from the supervisor of records related to a decades-old internal affairs case against Rose.

In a letter Friday, the Walsh administration said the records could not be redacted in a way to sufficiently protect the identity of the victim as required by law. The letter stated that the documents would never be released in response to a record request.

If the administration has its way, the public may never know details of the alleged crime or how thoroughly the department investigated. Rose remained on the force for another 22 years.

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For now, the case of Commissioner White is the most pressing and politically volatile.

The mayor suspended White in early February, after the Globe revealed that a judge in 1999 had issued a restraining order against White. The order barred him from contact with his wife and children and forced him to surrender his firearm. White was never charged with a crime and in court records at the time he denied the allegations, which included hitting his wife once and sleeping with a gun under his pillow.

The department launched internal affairs investigations into White in 1993,1999, and 2013.

A Boston police internal affairs log shows that the 1993 improper use of force case against White was “not sustained,” which means the “investigation failed to prove or disprove the allegations.” The log does not include details of the allegations.

The police log provides the same level of detail for White’s 1999 case, which was initiated days after the judge issued a restraining order at the request of his former wife, who is also a police officer. The log shows the internal affairs investigation was inconclusive and White was neither found guilty nor exonerated.

In that case, White faced two specific rule violations. First he was accused of breaking the law, which investigators could not prove or disprove. The future commissioner was also charged under a department rule that covers neglect of duty and unreasonable judgment. Investigators designated that charge “filed,” which means the “investigation was inconclusive, due to one or more reasons beyond the control of the investigator.”

The controversy has spilled White’s family history into public view. His older daughter told radio station GBH that the domestic violence allegations were a lie and that “that man has never hit my mother.” The commissioner’s younger daughter pushed back against her older sister’s claim in a Facebook post, writing that, “we all know ur dad’s favorite and u got a personal vendetta with ma, but that man ain’t innocent.”

White’s former wife posted a message on Facebook saying she wanted to “set the record straight” after her older daughter disavowed the abuse allegations.

“Since you all think that I am a liar . . . Now the truth will come out,” wrote the former wife. “And you know who you are . . . you have just opened Pandora’s Box.”


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.