Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The Shoestring discusses police transparency at community panel

The Shoestring hosts a discussion on police accountability and media transparency
Olivia Hoover

On Nov. 16, around 30 residents of western Massachusetts communities attended a panel discussion on “Police Accountability and the Media” at the Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton, where panelists discussed their investigative work into police transparency and other topics.

The panel was moderated by Shoestring reporter Sierra Dickey and featured investigative reporters Shelby Lee and Dusty Christensen, as well as former Northampton Policing Review Commissioner Dan Cannity.

The discussion was hosted by The Shoestring, an independent western Massachusetts news collective, as a follow-up to their continued coverage of “post-2020 efforts to reform the police.”

Lee and Christensen have been actively reporting on issues surrounding police transparency and accountability in western Massachusetts.

Cannity served on the Northampton Policing Review Commission, which was created by the mayor and city council of Northampton as a response to local and national pressure to defund police departments in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

An issue of transparency

Dickey began by asking the panelists, “What is the issue with the cops not being transparent to reporters or to their communities and why is it that people who aren’t reporters should care about public records?”

Lee said the issue they are drawn to the most on the topic of transparency is how police departments “take advantage of” certain exemptions from the state’s public records legislation. As reported in their article about police departments withholding weapons inventories, they detailed how many municipalities claimed exemptions from the public records law in the name of “public safety,” and in doing so refused to provide certain public records lists.

Christensen went on to emphasize the importance of realizing “just how opaque Massachusetts really is,” despite its reputation of being “progressive.”

“We are the only state in the country where the legislative, judiciary and executive branch can all claim to be entirely exempt from the public records law,” he said.

Although the 2020 Massachusetts police reform bill made police misconduct records more readily accessible, Christensen said he “requested civilian complaints to the Holyoke Police Department over a ten-year period and it took the city and the police department a year and a half to come up with those records.”

“This is the kind of opacity we’re talking about,” Christensen said.

Analyzing the effectiveness of the 2020 police reform bill

The police reform bill, which was signed into law in 2020 by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, aimed to increase police accountability.

The bill “did a whole bunch of things like… create a POST commission, which in theory is supposed to track police misconduct and investigate it,” Christensen said. Notably, the bill intended to maintain a public police misconduct database that every police department was required to update, a tool that Christensen said is very important for reporters.

“For whatever reason, the state decided that instead of asking for all of that data, they were just going to ask for the cases that police departments had sustained or upheld against police officers,” he added.

“As reporters, we’re all about transparency. I think, you know, being able to provide that powerful information, makes for a better-informed citizenry… it allows us all to understand what kind of society we live in and not be gaslighted about what’s going on in our own backyards,” Christensen said. “And that is just not happening under this reform bill.”

Transparency in public databases 

Cannity continued the discussion by saying sometimes police departments will “publish dashboards, but again, it’s sort of incomprehensible and they’re very manipulative with the data that they share, because it doesn’t give you a full picture of what they’re doing,” such as buried statistics about the discriminatory use of force against people of color.

“The other thing that we’re seeing organizations do is they’re trying to pull together some form of accountability and they bring in external reviewers and pay thousands of dollars to the company to say, ‘okay, review this for us,’” Cannity said,

According to Cannity, some of the reports that were sent back “didn’t even spell the chief’s name correctly.” The reports spoke to the “level of professionalism” of the reviewing agencies, he said, not to mention the accountability piece of their obligation.

For example, in the case of Marisol Driouech, a 60-year-old Holyoke resident who was tackled and pepper-sprayed by Northampton police, “the city and the external reviewers all found that this was reasonable and rational,” Cannity said. “I watched that video a number of times, it’s not reasonable. The escalation of force is not reasonable.”

Implementation of mass surveillance

Dickey posed the next question to Lee and Christensen: “What are some other themes that, you would say encapsulate your reporting on police here and national search?”

In response, Lee elaborated on their reporting of “mass surveillance and a lack of privacy for the community in the name of policing and public safety.” They cited certain types of technology used by law enforcement poses a risk to the privacy of civilians.

For example, Easthampton recently purchased “automatic license plate scanning devices and software that’s owned by a private company,” which Lee said was flagged by the ACLU for “building a type of mass surveillance they’ve never seen before.”

Christensen said another theme that emerged in his reporting “was just sort of the gobbling up of public resources” by police departments in cities such as Holyoke.

Dickey continued the discussion of police department funding, asking the panelists how they have “seen the police maintain their monopoly on public funds?”

The panelists described how police “get to use the language of safety” and expand their presence by claiming a need for “even more tools.” Processes like civil asset forfeiture allow them to receive additional sources of funding “from the community that they just get to keep and then there’s no oversight on how they use them,” Lee said.

“In Easthampton they bought a $40,000 boat with that money,” added Lee, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

Limits of data-driven policing

Dickey asked Cannity to discuss “the limits of data-driven policing and how decisions could instead be driven by values.”

Cannity started by discussing how the lack of information on instances such as the over-policing of different communities and gender or race-based policing means “you can’t make data-driven decisions.”

His second assertion centered around how if police are doing “the emergency management, [their] goal should be to reduce [their] need in that community. And they’re not doing that.”

Lastly, he questioned, “Do we want police as a response that can tell you that since the institution of policing as a government funded action has existed, resistance to it has also existed?” The existence of different values and data create different ways to look at “policing,” such as public-health oriented ways, Cannity said.

Dickey wrapped up the forum segment of the panel by asking Cannity, “How has the media informed your work on policing here and elsewhere? Why is it important to cover?”

“Because no one else is doing it,” Cannity said.

Addie Padhi can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *