14 min read

"We Know That Our Mandate is About Transparency" - An Interview with POST's Enrique Zuniga

The Thames River shoreline in a black-and-white sketch.
"Thames Police" by James McNeill Whistler. Image courtesy Smithsonian Open Access.

Late Friday afternoon, I was able to get some virtual face time with the POST Commission's Executive Director, Enrique Zuniga. We discussed some of the details on the disciplinary database release, future plans, public records and transparency, and a lot more.

This is the firehose; I'll post a more detailed and granular overview later this week.  Transcription assistance via Otter AI, but I listened through the whole thing and made corrections as needed.  Any errors are mine and mine alone; with edits solely for clarity or to remove some crosstalk or stumbles.

Further, in instances where there is additional context of value, I have provided hyperlinks.  I should note that I did not directly share said links with Mr. Zuniga, although he was aware of the topics.

Jeff Raymond: So the first sweep of these of these reports does look like there are some gaps. You've identified them as well. We've mentioned in other news stories and interviews and stuff. How did [POST] identify how those errors have come into place? Was it a reporting problem from the from the police side? Was it conscious choosing of certain things from post side? Was it just data issues? What was the situation?

Enrique Zuniga: Let me try to summarize what we're seeing, Jeff, in a couple of categories. There were a few instances in which there was data that was reported to us and he was wrong. They're now telling us it's wrong. They're now telling us it's different or perhaps that in some cases, something was sustained, but then later reversed by an arbitrator. And we did not report on the reversal. Of course, it's our intention now for those instances to report on you. But by the way, the report the the original part of the sustained record was accurate. In those instances, you know, if something happened after we'll append to the record, but the record was, at least initially, okay.

JR: Sure. So like, for instance, there was an officer in Douglas who had an extra couple incidents that were sustained that were, you know, were more significant than just like dereliction of duty, or whatever it is. And there was the guy in Duxbury, Steven Amado, who recently got indicted; the indictment obviously wouldn't be on this list, because it cuts off in January. But he had something like six sustained instances in the past, and those don't show up in your list at all.

EZ: Well, there were other other errors, I guess. Other issues, or other buckets, there were a couple of agencies that did not make it into the database for a couple of reasons. We're just learning literally, as we speak. And these guys are spending -- the team is really on this.

JR: When you're not talking to a bunch of people like me, you're figuring this out?

EZ: But you know what, it's important to talk to people like you, so I'll make time. So I'll try to summarize as we can, as we as we can. But let me let me just mention, please, a couple of instances, would it be given the questions that you put something in writing, let me start this way. We built and spent a fair amount of time building a process and a tool for validating records. In other words, [Departments] submitted, we check technologically that we have a name and a person, last name, date of birth, and MPTC ID number, which is the unique identifier which is what we asked for in the database and in the spreadsheets. There's a match, we can [post] the record. And then we have these error reports. And we have to look at those error reports and so on. And we would ask the agencies to resubmit when there were errors, because we did not want to be manipulating the data that was submitted to us. We did not want to say, 'oh, looks like" -- and in one case they did -- "looks like they transpose the last name and the first name for everybody. Let's just switch them." Our approach was "YOU switched it." [laughs].  

In that back and forth, we are seeing that there's at least three agencies that we caught errors [in submission]. We thought we had them. And we know they never made it in yet, and those are Cambridge, Brookline, and Everett which were the largest, you know, missing.

JR: Yeah.

EZ: It is possible that and I'm getting to your answer. It is it is possible, and we're looking at this as well that some records were not included at the record level, that some may need from one agency, but others didn't make it from the same agency because there's not a match. And, you know, the instances that you mentioned might be that case, I don't know the answer, but--

JR: I can't expect you to know the names of individuals.

EZ: That's another one of reasons of why there may be missing records. And, you know, as you as you want to know, you know, this, we need to get these records out, even though we spent a fair amount of time trying to validate them. You know, we're gonna append to them, which is our plan.

JR: Right. And it's an ongoing process. I completely, I completely understand that. So with the-- now, I know that you guys didn't go with the stuff that was submitted in 2022, because of the data validation, because I know not everybody did consistently, you know, the whole nine yards. Do you use those at all in developing this? Or have those-- has that work more or less been put aside in favor of what was submitted this year?

EZ: A little bit something in between? We did a review... they're not put to the side entirely. We know they're there. We've done some spot checking to figure out that you know, that agencies follow the instructions that they were given the second time. And it's possible that we'll come back and report on those, perhaps in the aggregate manner, at a later time.

JR: Okay, so in the sense of the aggregate, one of the things that I was hoping for when this got released this week, was being able to get the-- get a sort of ballpark as to the number of complaints, the frequency of complaints, the department patterns, as it were, is that future functionality that you guys are planning?

EZ: Yeah.

JR: So that so this is just really stage one in terms of how you guys are presenting it?

EZ: Yes, yes. Okay. If you know, for her the term, a business intelligence tool, which can be used to select the criteria, that the person can do it, you're in a website, you say, I want to see how many of these and that, you know.

JR: So you guys are looking to work with like the Salesforce visualizations or whatever to make these things happen?

EZ: Yes.

JR: Great. That's what I assumed. But I wanted to make sure because I hadn't seen it anywhere else.

EZ: So for full disclosure, we don't have money for that yet. [laughs] We're gonna--

JR: I know, it's not cheap. I understand.

EZ: And we trust that the legislature is going to give it to us. But you know--

JR: You're not there yet

EZ: -- that's the vision. So we make do with what we have, and we know that we, we gotta put out spreadsheets in the meantime.

JR: Excellent. So, um, the one thing that's popped up a lot with folks that I've talked to is how you guys are not using the data on on unsustained or exonerated complaints. I know that the letter you sent out kind of mentioned the data integrity concerns as part of that, but, you know, is there is there any other reason as to why we're not getting access to that information at this point in time?

EZ: We are directed by the statute to issue regulations, or the dissemination of information, and consider the health and safety of officers when when promulgating those regulations. We did that we promulgated regulations. In those regulations we ended up with and there was a good amount of discussion at the commission, that whether it there's there's benefit to and what the merits are towards publishing unsustained complaints or exonerated complaints, we ended up in the following place, which is our intention: to report unsustained complaints in the aggregate so that people can do analytics. So that you, for example, could say, "okay, how many sustained complaints versus the sustained complaints that you can now see? What does the city of Chicopee have in comparison to Holyoke. How are you compared to everybody else?" And if the average of sustained to not sustained is 30% or thereabout? If you're if you're an agency that is at 5%, well, what might be going on there?  Or you are an agency at 50% - what might happen?

JR: So the idea, if I'm understanding you correctly, the idea is that in the future, this is another future functionality thing where, you know, we don't need to know Officer B's four complaints that were unsustained but we will be able to see Town A's number of four additional unsustained things without having to necessarily identify that individual.

EZ: That's right. And I think that would that would really give everybody an idea of "hey, is there a systemic issue here?" And by the way - you're gonna get that. We're going to be investigating those agencies. You [want to say]. 5% of your, you know... let's have a talk with that internal affairs department, you know.

JR: So you're kind of touching on my next question here, which is about how there's no real standard across the departments as to what constitutes these things? Are you planning to have any sort of like process going forward, where there might be something standardized, or at least some sort of standard level of reporting?

EZ: Yes. Yes to all, and again, we have a broad mandate, we're a growing agency, we have to take the first steps first.

JR: [Laughs] You've been in place two years, I get it.

EZ: And some of us, you know, like Alia [a POST staffer], just joined us a few months ago. So, you know, we're growing, but yes, that's definitely the intention we have. We're intending to-- the next set of regulations is probably going to be about auditing and maintenance of records and records that are supposed to be sent to the commission. So that we could, you know, verify a lot of what we are taking from the from the agencies.

JR: Great. So I know that you guys tried to do as limited redactions as possible on these pieces here. I know you're citing the CORI exemption for it. Is there--  where is POST coming from in terms of calling these CORI information as opposed to disciplinary information?

You know, that I'd have to defer to our General Counsel, to give you a better answer than I can. All I know, is that, you know, he's very mindful of the fact that we have to abide by a number of other statutes and not just around what exemptions provide. So let me, let me just defer to him--

JR: You're gonna defer, that's fine. That is completely reasonable. In terms of this, specifically to the disciplinary records, does POST have a specific person, or individual that is dedicated to this work, or is it more of a group effort from a lot of different analysts and such within your org?

EZ: We have a main person who is dedicated to this. We have, in terms of managing all the back and forth with agencies, what I was describing, you know, you have errors you may need to communicate, and so on. He's been very busy lately, and has been busy from the beginning. We have a CTO who's very much on top of these, especially, you know, spending a lot of his time now on this. And we have a team of people in the certification unit, who have been mostly focused on technology issues in our Salesforce platform that dovetail into what we're doing with the disciplinary records. And that's just for the disciplinary records project.

JR: Sure.

EZ: [The] Division of Standards is very busy with the individual cases that they have. Some of them come, you know, via these processes. And, you know, Brian, the person who's, you know, triaging and doing all these referrals [cases] to the team, "you got to look at this," and then they take it from there.

JR: Excellent, great. So, let's see here. You answered this [question] for me pretty well, actually. So I'm kind of curious as to the messaging that's coming out of POST to departments. I've been doing public records requests around a lot of these others, I'm sure you're aware. And you've probably gotten many complaints from many people about me, but that's okay. And--

EZ: You know, some of the some of-- you know what we've gotten, and I think you would appreciate this answer - yeah, we've gotten questions as to how to respond to you. And we have said, "we don't give advice on those matters.

JR: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. But with that said, some of the emails that people have been sending me along, kind of -- this is gonna sound more direct than, I intend to -- conflicting messages as to how-- what to report, how to report, what the messaging is on that. Is there some sort of standard that's moving forward with it? Is it looking at older [records] that make sense as you kind of moved along a little bit. You know, I was just wondering if you could speak to that at all.

EZ: There's detailed instructions in the submission of sheets. Historical disciplinary records, that's second time around in the template, we stand by that. That was always the consistent message to them. When when it comes to ongoing matters, you know, we let the regulations speak for themselves, we're going to come out with additional guidance that people wanted. That was actually slated to be discussed for the commission last meeting [crosstalk] but there's more guidance coming precisely for these reasons to say, "here's what you can exclude, it has to be certain minor matters only and, and you have to submit everything to the Commission within two business days, et cetera, et cetera."

So when it comes to going forward, you know, and we have been at this now for a while, as you know or as you may remember, they have to submit an incident or complaint within two business days. So we do it right away, right away. And then they send us the IA report, and then they send us the disposition. And I suppose now, after this process, we have to allow for the fact that they might later send us a reversal, which again, is part of the process.

JR: Sure.

EZ: You know, all along the way, we will have that information, ideally in real time.  You know, when it came to the historical disciplinary records, we said, you have to fill out this template. And here's the detailed instructions on how you fill it out. And that has been the same couple of times.

JR: Okay. Good to know. That clarifies a lot for me. So thank you. My last question for you, because I know we're up on time anyway -- and we actually got through everything. I'm shocked. This is awesome -- So I know you have been getting questions about how to respond to public records request surrounding these things. I know that the Mass Chiefs of Police met with POST last year. And one of the questions that popped up from their counsel was about the questionnaires and these records being in the public record area. And, you know, the answer you had given him was very much in the-- in the spirit of what you've been saying today, where there's going to be regulations propagated, the whole nine yards. But, you know, it sounded like the conversation was leaning toward trying to keep a lot of this stuff close to the vest. And I'm just curious as to whether POST's position has changed on that in the last year and a half, whether there's any intentions of making some of this stuff more public, or more available for people to review, or if this type of thing, you know, where it's going to be a database, obviously, visualization, stuff like that. I know, this has just hit stage one, where that's going to be pretty much the extent of what the public will generally be able to see.

EZ: Are you referring to the six questions in the questionnaire?

JR: I'm referring to both in particular, and I know the questionnaire is under litigation right now, in some regards. So if you can't speak that, I understand, but more to the point is that like, you know, in that-- in the injunction, even they say, "these might actually be public record." And, you know, the questionnaire is going to be the next thing a lot of people are looking toward once this database is more, you know, more robust. And especially when a lot of these departments seem to be conflating these records with the questionnaires and treating them the same way. I'm just kind of curious as to how POST is planning on pushing forward in that regard.

EZ: For the, for the questionnaire or, like, whether we would make available the questionnaire on other matters?

JR: So let me let me rephrase it, then because I'm not coming across clearly. The issue that I'm looking at right now is that a lot of these departments don't want to share any of this information at all. That is not the letter or spirit of the statute. You know, obviously, there is a balancing test, as we all know, and obviously, there are things that should be and shouldn't be [disclosed]. But the thing is, the departments are definitely going-- much more of the side of non-disclosure.  And, you know, not to put words in POST's mouth, it seems like POST has been slowly scaling back a little bit in terms of the stuff they're looking to collect/willing to provide. Just-- and I'm saying this [as] an outsider, you know, [a] radical transparency dude... you know, POST's position at that meeting, at least from what the video seems to show is that you know, you guys were really kind of keeping that in mind and wanting to try to mold some guardrails around it that would look pretty tight [compared to] from how they seem to take it.

I'm curious as to where POST sits on that today, you know, 14 months after having that meeting, you know, as we know more about it and know more about what you guys are trying to accomplish?

EZ: Right. You know, and I'd have to go to to give you a provisional answer and follow up with Randy, our General Counsel yet but, in general, you know, our hesitation or our guardrails around disclosing information is all around it being ready, and, you know, of data integrity before we can, we can put it out there. I know -- we just put out a lot of information that now needs to be corrected. So, you know--

JR: You're also learning as we go.

EZ: But you can understand that the principle was "okay, some of this information is perhaps... is a public record. But while we are aggregating, making sure that it's the right person, making sure that, you know, it's not "Michael Murphy, without our date of birth, that could be over here and over there." While that's going on, we're going to protect it. Now, I would say that, you know, as that happens, we are going to put information out there like we intend to, like the statute directs us to do, where we feel we need to redact, we don't, if something is under litigation that we can protect, we will do that. But, you know, again, we know that our mandate is about transparency, there's this public facing, searchable database [unintelligible] from the statute that we intend to build on. And we started to do-- we have been doing that, but we took a big step this week.

JR: Yeah. That is an excellent way to close this. I really appreciate that.

A sincere thanks to Enrique Zuniga and his staff for finding some time on their schedule for a small independent newsletter out of Central Massachusetts. More later this week.

Jeff Raymond is a former columnist for the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Founding Editor of The Bramanville Tribune. He can be reached at jeff.raymond@masstransparency.org or on Twitter at @jeffinmillbury