State legislators are looking to make changes to a Massachusetts law that keeps secret all police records of domestic and sexual violence, after a WBUR investigation revealed the statute designed to protect victims has instead shielded alleged abusers.
The privacy law makes it harder for survivors to access their own police incident reports and other records — documents they need in order to file restraining orders or fight for custody of their children.
The secrecy also can lead to repeat episodes of violence, because alleged abusers are not outed. State Sen. John Velis, the bill’s sponsor, said, “Because of the way that the law is currently written, are we missing out on things that could go a long way to preventing something like this from happening again?”
His legislation would create a task force to review the statute and make recommendations to “ensure confidentiality of domestic violence survivors without protecting perpetrators.”
WBUR found that police departments cite the law when withholding records that show how they respond to domestic violence calls. It also allows departments to keep records about officers accused of sexual and domestic misconduct private.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a law so broad. Domestic violence records were made secret in 2014; sexual assault records have been confidential since 1974.
Advocates for victims also are pressing for change, but they want the task force to include survivor voices. Nine of the 10 proposed members so far are designees of law enforcement or lawmakers.
Velis said he’s open to changing the makeup of the task force, and adding sexual assault records to the committee’s review. The bill is with the Senate judiciary committee and does not yet have a hearing date.
Separately from Velis’ legislation, Jane Doe Inc., a statewide survivor advocacy group, has been holding meetings to discuss how to improve the law. Deputy Director Hema Sarang-Sieminski said there’s a tension between privacy interests and survivors’ need to access their own reports.
“Those are the sort of pushes and pulls that we are grappling with,” she said, adding that the goal is “making sure we have thought about any of the possible potential outcomes and consequences.”
One option would be following the Connecticut model: making the records public to all, but withholding names and addresses of victims. Massachusetts also could keep domestic and sexual crimes off public police logs, but make reports available to anyone who requests them.
There’s still a long process ahead before any change can happen. Most important, Sarang-Sieminski said, is including survivors’ voices in the conversation.
Ann Donahue, whose sister Mary Fairbairn was killed in an alleged domestic violence homicide three years ago, said she doesn’t have high hopes for the task force as currently proposed. She called the bill a “big nothing burger” and expressed doubt that an overhaul of the law could come in the near future, “which is when we need it.”
Donahue said she wants to see closer scrutiny of how police approach domestic violence calls. Police were called to the Fairbairns’ house twice in just the week before Mary was killed, but did not arrest or remove anyone from the home. Fairbairn’s husband is awaiting trial for her murder.
But details of how officers handled those calls are locked away from the public eye. Groton police refused to provide WBUR records about the Fairbairns’ calls or other domestic violence incidents they responded to before someone was killed. They cited the privacy law in withholding such reports, as did 15 other police departments in Massachusetts.
“How do we know that they did everything that they were supposed to do?” Donahue asked. “And how do we learn, as a person or as a community, if we don’t learn from our mistakes? And we don’t see those mistakes if they’re buried.”
Whatever changes are made, Donahue said it’s critical that the law does not put the privacy of victims or their families at risk.