For decades, police departments across Massachusetts have maintained a public log of arrests.
But in a break with tradition, the MBTA Transit Police are now claiming the right to black out the names of everyone they arrest.
In two recent letters to the Globe, the MBTA said its policy was justified under the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information Act, a stance that drew sharp criticism from open records advocates.
“It’s outrageous they would do that,” said Robert Ambrogi, a media attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “The information is provided by the vast majority of other police departments.”
The Globe recently requested a copy of the Transit Police’s police log for April 26. The agency eventually provided a log of incidents and arrests but redacted the names of everyone arrested.
Rebecca Murray, the state’s supervisor of records, questioned the agency’s argument, noting that CORI restrictions do not cover daily police logs.
“The MBTA must clarify this matter,” Murray wrote the MBTA earlier this month.
In response, the MBTA said its arrest log should not be considered a daily police log.
The Globe has appealed the agency’s decision to Murray’s office.
A Brookline lawyer, J. Whitfield Larrabee, has also sued the MBTA in Suffolk Superior Court for withholding similar records. Larrabee said he recently received the arrest logs but with the names redacted.
“The MBTA is violating the public records law and is interfering with the ability of the public to keep a watchful eye on the department,” Larrabee said. “There is no good reason to violate the public records law in this manner.”
CORI was originally designed to restrict public access to a centralized database of state criminal records, but police departments have increasingly used the law to withhold routine reports. In 2014, Boston police cited CORI in suppressing the names of police officers arrested for drunk driving in 2014. That same year, the Massachusetts State Police tried to shield the identity of a district court judge accused of stealing a $4,000 Cartier watch.
The Globe sued the departments for withholding the records two years ago; the case is still pending.
Even as the Transit Police redacted all the names from its arrest log, it has identified some suspects on its website after they were arraigned in open court.
On July 18, for example, the MBTA posted the name and picture of a Southbridge man they caught trying to avoid paying the subway fare at the Mass. Ave. station by sneaking behind another passenger.
Officers arrested him after learning he was wanted for other charges, such as breaking and entering.
A 1980 state law specifically requires police departments to maintain a public daily log of arrests, although the statute has since been amended to require certain types of arrests, such as those for rape or domestic violence, to be kept in a separate confidential register. Other states generally make all arrests of adults public through either daily police logs or jail booking records.
Further muddying the issue, there are questions about whether the 1980 law applies to state police departments, such as the Transit Police. The prior supervisor of records, Shawn Williams, ruled that the statute only applies to municipal and college police departments.
But the current supervisor of records, Murray, issued a ruling earlier this year that suggested the law does apply to state forces after all.
A state working group that includes Ambrogi and Murray is currently studying the question, as well as the parameters of the CORI law. It will ultimately make recommendations to the Legislature by the end of year.Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.