Kelly Young was driving down Route 28 in Milton, Massachusetts, when a sedan traveling in the other direction rear ended another car and veered into Young’s lane, hitting his car head on, police say.
Young, 56, a father of two and son of a former state lawmaker, died from his injuries.
Two months later, the identity of the driver who hit Young’s car remains a secret under a new Massachusetts State Police policy that withholds from the public the names of drivers involved in a crash unless they are charged, cited or killed.
The State Police official who made the change says he did it to protect people’s privacy, but government transparency advocates say it’s only the latest step to limit the public’s access to information about what government is doing.
“There is a growing tendency of government agencies to keep information private, rather than to keep it public,” said Robert Ambrogi, a media law attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “The basic assumption of the law is that government information is public – they’re doing the work of the public and that is information that we as members of the public are entitled to.”
For years, the Massachusetts State Police had routinely identified all drivers involved in crashes, even minor ones, that occur within their jurisdiction. But David Procopio, the agency’s director of communications, changed that policy this spring, saying he wanted to preserve the privacy of individuals who are not the subject of a public action, like a criminal charge or a civil citation.
Procopio, who is also a State Police spokesman, said the change came about after a routine review of policy in the agency’s media unit and was written into the unit’s operating procedures.
“I am very pleased with how it has worked out, and I am very confident in the quantity, quality and accuracy of information our office releases every day,” he said in an email.
The policy change comes as the State Police are under increased scrutiny for its handling of requests for public records. Last month, the agency was awarded a tongue-in-cheek “Golden Padlock Award” by Investigative Reporters & Editors for “going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties.”
When The Patriot Ledger requested public records related to the crash that killed Young in May, the State Police did not respond until the newspaper notified the Secretary of State’s Public Records Division. State Police then denied the request under an exemption to the state public records law that allows agencies to withhold records when their release could jeopardize an investigation. The Ledger has appealed that denial.
The Ledger has also filed a public records request for documents related to a July 12 pedestrian accident on Quincy Shore Drive in Quincy that killed 65-year-old Wayne Guilherme of Braintree. Charges have not yet been filed in either crash.
The change in State Police policy has won praise from some privacy advocates, including Caitriona Fitzgerald, the Boston-based state policy coordinator for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Not all interactions with the police should be made public,” she said in an email. “And people may be reluctant to contact the police if they are. The policy change makes sense.”
But Ambrogi, the head of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said it is important that the public have access to information about who is involved in crashes even if they have not been charged or cited. He gives an example of a high-profile official, like a mayor or police chief, who tries to use their influence to keep their role in a crash quiet, or a well-connected individual who keeps getting in crashes but is never held accountable.
“Only by putting people’s identities in police reports can that kind of thing come out,” he said. “If you have the police decide whose identities get released, you’re in trouble.”
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