Two specialists in the state’s public records law say that the Boston Police Department is violating the statute by refusing to release the names of five officers who were caught driving drunk. But Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he has no plans to order police to release the information.
Department officials declined to release the names in response to requests from the Globe as part of a review of off-duty drunken driving involving law enforcement officers. Using public records and interviews, the Globe counted at least 30 officers in Massachusetts since 2012 who have been caught driving drunk, including five from Boston.
In several cases, police departments attempted to withhold records even when the officers had been in serious crashes. The Globe also found that at least 10 officers were kept on the police payroll after their driving privileges were suspended and they could not perform their normal duties.
“There is no exception in the public records laws for information embarrassing to the police,” said Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney at Prince Lobel Tye LLP in Boston who specializes in the First Amendment, public records, and media law.
Another First Amendment and public records attorney, Peter Caruso Sr. of Andover, added, “These are public records as clear as the nose on your face.”
The attorneys said the decision to withhold the names was particularly hard to justify since Boston police have published the names of dozens of civilians who were arrested for drunken driving on its website. The withholding of names makes it difficult for the press and public to determine whether the officers had been accused of drunken driving or other misconduct before.
“Without names, these records pose more questions than answers,” Caruso said.
Boston Police Lieutenant Michael McCarthy said the city believed names of the officers were protected under a law set up to restrict access to the state’s centralized database of criminal records, commonly called CORI for Criminal Offender Record Information.
“The department does not have discretion when deciding to release this type of information,” McCarthy said.
He explained that the department is free to release names of people who are arrested shortly after the incidents but are prohibited from doing so when someone requests the information later on. He declined to cite a court ruling or statute that spells out that difference.
After initially withholding most of the documents related to the five officers, McCarthy agreed to release reports with the names blacked out, including two additional incident reports showing that the officers had been in collisions.
According to one report, the unnamed officer was severely hurt in an early morning one-car crash in Boston’s Readville neighborhood and taken directly to the hospital instead of being arrested. The officer was disoriented, semi-conscious, had cuts on the head and a “large amount of blood on head, face, neck, shoulder and chest area,” according to the report on the Dec. 13, 2012, wreck.
Boston Police withheld the name, but the Suffolk District Attorney’s office identified the officer as Stephen Roe, who city records showed was a canine officer. The office said Roe’s criminal case was continued without a finding in 2013 after he admitted to facts sufficient for a guilty verdict and agreed to attend a drunken driving education program and give up his license for 45 days, a common resolution for first-time offenders.
In a second incident, an officer was arrested after crashing into a parked car in Jamaica Plain in February 2013, damaging the side door and mirror. In that case, the officer admitted he had been drinking and that he hit the car, according to the police report. The officer was glassy eyed, unsteady on his feet, and slurred his speech, the report said.
But police claimed it was too dark to safely conduct sobriety tests and the officer refused a breath analysis test. Though Boston Police blacked out the name, other records show Boston Police officer Robert P. Carr was charged with operating under the influence and refused a breath test on the same date.
Carr automatically lost his license for 180 days for refusing the breath test and couldn’t perform his normal duties, but Boston Police confirmed they kept him on the payroll. McCarthy said the officer was given administrative duties that didn’t require him to drive. The criminal case is slated to go to trial in March. Carr, meanwhile, retired from the department after turning 65 last month.
The name of a third Boston Police officer became public after a woman who was nearly killed by a drunk police officer contacted the media. Richard Jeanetti was required to resign as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors last year.
Police have yet to produce records for two other cases where officers were accused of drunken driving outside the city. McCarthy said the incidents involved a hit and run in January 2013 where the officer was later charged with driving drunk and another case where the officer was accused of driving drunk in June 2012.
McCarthy said police have not decided the punishment for the officer involved in the hit and run and never disciplined Jeanetti because he resigned. But in the other three cases, the officers agreed to 30-day suspensions; in two of those cases, the officers served 10 days of the suspension and the rest was set aside.
The Globe has appealed the withholding of the records to the secretary of state’s public records division. The agency has not ruled.
Boston’s decision to withhold the names contrasts with some other departments, such as Fall River and Springfield, which released the names of officers arrested for drunken driving.
But Boston isn’t alone in limiting the release of information. Newton blacked out the name of a Newton officer who was arrested by Brookline Police, saying it was confidential personnel information. And in several other instances, the Middlesex district attorney’s office blacked out officer names on court records in drunken driving cases, citing CORI restrictions.
Walsh said he deferred the decision to withhold the names to the Police Department. “I have no real understanding of what we should do or can’t do,” he said.
But Walsh defended the department’s authority to put Carr on paid administrative duty while his license was suspended for refusing a breath test. While officers continue to earn their usual salary on desk duty, Walsh noted, they can’t earn extra overtime money.
Walsh also said the department considers the individual circumstances when deciding how to punish officers who drive drunk. “I think the way the police department handles drunk driving cases is one case at a time,” he added.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said she was concerned about the decision to keep the names secret, particularly when the police regularly release the names of ordinary residents who are arrested.
“When police officers treat their own differently by keeping secrets about the department,” said Carol Rose, the group’s executive director, “it undermines community trust and public safety.”