The Massachusetts State Police — currently fighting a lawsuit seeking the birthdates for state troopers — is now pushing legislation to formally shield that very information from public view.
Public records watchdogs say the bill would make it more difficult for the public and the press to identify misconduct, as well as deliver a potential blanket exemption for a range of other identifying information.
“You would think the State Police would have learned from the last several months that the public trust is important,” said Jeffrey J. Pyle, a partner in the media group at the Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He pointed to multiple scandals, including allegations the now-retired colonel ordered troopers to make changes to a police report about the arrest of a judge’s daughter, as well as a probe into alleged overtime corruption.
“If it’s true they wrote this legislation, that shows they perhaps have not learned anything from the Alli Bibaud scandal, not to mention the overtime scandal.”
The agency has opposed a pending lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court brought by The Boston Globe, which had asked for the birthdates of troopers so it could look up the driving records of officers who had been involved in serious crashes or charged with drunken driving.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge William F. Sullivan last year sided with the Globe, but after the State Police appealed, an appellate court reversed an order for a preliminary injunction and sent the case back to the lower court. The department has argued that providing the information would put troopers at risk.
Meanwhile, Senator Michael O. Moore, a Millbury Democrat and cochair of the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety, said he met in recent months with State Police, who presented language for a bill that would exempt birthdates of state employees, including troopers, as well as other information, including Social Security numbers.
The Legislature last week referred it to the Committee on Rules.
“It was more [for the] safety of personnel, of employees,” Moore said of the bill’s intent. “That by giving some of this information out, if they’ve got your name, date of birth, [people] can confirm an address or an e-mail, then they can try to track you down.”
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said there’s intelligence that indicates criminals have sought out personal information on law enforcement officers to “target” them.
“The State Police support this bill to make it harder for criminals [and] terrorists to target officers of the law in this manner,” he said in a statement. “The department will continue to publicly disclose any arrests of department members.”
But Pyle, who is not representing the Globe in its lawsuit, said the intent of the bill appears to be “to frustrate the lawsuit.”
But other aspects of the bill also raised alarms with public records watchdogs. It also seeks to exempt other personal identification information that “shall include, but shall not be limited to” credit card information or an employee’s telephone number. The clause leaves an open-ended interpretation that could include other less-defined information.
“This bill will make it harder for us to keep public officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, an attorney and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It’s limiting access to information needed to identify those who aren’t acting in our interest. We need more than a name.”Reach Matt Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.