March 15, 2022:- It’s Sunshine Week, a time to promote open government. Who says so? The News Leaders Association.
People who refer to themselves as “News Leaders” make me suspicious, for reasons that I will not sidetrack myself by going into. So staying focused (my suspicions of the News Leadership notwithstanding) and because the concept of Sunshine Week appeals to me, I will mark the event by recounting what I learned from the response to one of my recent public records requests, more specifically the discovery that a particular record does not seem to exist.
Hate Crime Hotline
After the election of Donald Trump (R), Maura Healey (D), who is the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, issued a press release:
“Following reports of harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants since Election Day, Attorney General Maura Healey today announced that her office has launched a new hotline for Massachusetts residents to report such incidents.”
At the time, I was reading about both (1) actual hate crimes, and (2) hate crime hoaxes, so the hotline caught my attention. I wondered what, if anything, would happen in response to calls that people made to the hotline and how, if at all, the Attorney General would measure the efficacy of the hotline. Whether public officials will bother to evaluate the effectiveness of a publicly-funded initiative (or even bother to think about how they would evaluate its effectiveness) is, indeed, one of the things that I wonder about.
Hate crimes are heinous. So if you receive a report of one, I think you should look into it, especially if you are the Commonwealth’s top law-enforcement official and you have set up a hotline for people to call. You might also want to keep track of the complaints. This, I thought, is what Attorney General Healey will do because according to the press release:
The hotline will be managed by attorneys and staff in the AG’s Office. While not every incident will be appropriate for legal action, the AG’s Office will be tracking reports and appropriate matters may be referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.
Based on that statement, it seemed reasonable to believe that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) would be tracking reports and, perhaps, referring appropriate matters to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.
One very good reason to keep track of reports and of how many you refer to law enforcement and what happens to the referral thereafter is this: Without that knowledge, you do not know whether the hotline works. Collating that information is essential to determining whether this particular policy — a hate crime hotline — has any effect on hate crimes.
If the hotline works, hallelujah. If it does not work, stop wasting those resources on a failed initiative and devote them instead to an initiative that is more likely to reduce hate crimes.
That, of course, assumes that the purpose of the hotline is to help reduce hate crimes as opposed to, say, conveying the message that the election of Donald Trump led to an increase in hate crimes.
Public Records Request
In January 2022, I submitted a public records request (the Massachusetts equivalent of a federal FOIA request) to the AGO asking for, among other things, the total number of calls received since the hotline’s inception. This, according to the AGO’s response is 5,929. I was surprised not so much by the total number as by how many were from other States (quite a few from California, in particular Los Angeles).
Another fact that I deem worthy of note is that 13 of the calls were from Amherst, where I live, so I have followed up with a public records request to the local police department to find out what, if anything, happened with these 13 hotline complaints.
In addition to the total number of calls, I asked for:
- The number of complaints received via the hotline referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau, and
- Investigations commenced as a result of calls to the hotline, and prosecutions and convictions arising therefrom.
Regarding these two items, the AGO answered:
[W]e do not track our cases in a manner in which we could identify responsive records without spending an undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time. It would require that we search, both electronically and manually, through every electronic and paper record made or received by AGO staff in multiple Bureaus and Divisions and review all of the records so found for applicable exemptions and privileges.
What I learned from this statement is that the AGO does not have a clear idea of how many hotline complaints were referred to local law enforcement or how many hotline calls resulted in investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. To find out, the folks at the AGO would have to really, really look into it, which would take an “undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time.”
This matters. The AGO urged “any Massachusetts resident who has witnessed or experienced bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence” to call the hotline. And many Massachusetts residents did, along with residents of many other places (including more than one might have expected from LA for some reason). There have been almost 6,000 hotline calls logged over the last 5 years or so.
So what happened to those complaints? How many did the AGO refer to local law enforcement, how many were investigated, and how many led to convictions? The AGO has not collated all that information.
This is why public records requests are useful. With them, we can learn not only what records our public officials make, but also what sort of records our public officials do not consider it worth making.