Police logs aren’t public?

I’ve done this thousands of times in cities and towns across Massachusetts.

In fact, it’s so basic that it’s one of the first tasks you teach a new reporter: Walk into the police station. Ask to see the log. Take notes and hand the log back.

The police log is a public record. I’ve looked at hand-scrawled books, leafed through typewritten sheets and computer printouts. They’re basic and chronological and contain the basics of police business: an officer stops a speeder? It’s there. A report of a prowler that turns out to be a skunk with his head stuck in a mayonnaise jar? It’s there, too. A balloonist cited for being a nuisance?

It should be there. I’d love to tell you all about it. But here’s the thing: when I stopped by the Grafton Police Station, the dispatcher at the desk had absolutely no idea what I was talking about when I asked for the log.

“We don’t do that,” she said. “The chief has to say it’s okay.”

I’m sorry? What was that public records law again?

Chapter 41: Section 98F. Daily logs; public records

Section 98F. Each police department and each college or university to which officers have been appointed pursuant to the provisions of section sixty-three of chapter twenty-two C shall make, keep and maintain a daily log, written in a form that can be easily understood, recording, in chronological order, all responses to valid complaints received, crimes reported, the names, addresses of persons arrested and the charges against such persons arrested. All entries in said daily logs shall, unless otherwise provided in law, be public records available without charge to the public during regular business hours and at all other reasonable times; provided, however, that any entry in a log which pertains to a handicapped individual who is physically or mentally incapacitated to the degree that said person is confined to a wheelchair or is bedridden or requires the use of a device designed to provide said person with mobility, shall be kept in a separate log and shall not be a public record nor shall such entry be disclosed to the public.

She gave me a form to fill out to request a copy of a specific incident report but I don’t need a public records request. I shouldn’t need to file a Freedom of Information Act request just to look at the log.

The chief, she said, is out of town until next week.

You know, it’s not just a journalist thing. It’s a public record. That means it’s supposed to be accessible to anyone, at any time during business hours. It’s so incredibly basic.

Do I have to practice Sunshine Week on my blog?

Here’s the state public records law in full: public-records

Meanwhile, I’m emailing the chief about the hot air balloon incident…

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3 thoughts on “Police logs aren’t public?

  1. Good for you for not settling for “no.” Every time officials try to close off public information, it’s important for people (not just media, but all people) not only to push back, but also to talk about it.

    Although hardly a disinterested party, I’d say in answer to your question about practicing Sunshine Week on your blog: “Yes!” — and you’re doing it!

    Thanks for fighting the good fight.

    Debra
    Sunshine Week Coordinator

  2. The online police logs are very frustrating! I was thrilled to find them a few months ago, until I noticed how out of date they were.

    I think when I moved to town the Grafton News didn’t even publish the logs. And that’s such a big part of the small-town news experience. Whenever we’ve done reader studies, the police logs always rank as one of the most popular features (behind obits, of course).

    I have absolutely no desire to publish police logs on my blog. They’re a PIA. The people in them always want to argue with you: “My son’s a good kid, you can’t ruin his life this way,” “It was all a misunderstanding, we had an argument and we got carried away,” “I wasn’t drunk, the cops just hate me.” But I would, as a resident, like to know that I can ask to see the log to find out why there were cops gathered at the Millbury Street intersection on my commute home, or if the people on the next block are having break-ins, or just because I want to, because it’s public record and I don’t need to state a reason why.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go edit. My reporter, you see… just finished filing the police logs for the day.

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