Chicopee police claim journalism is an attack on their department
“An issue I have with the author of the complaint, Maya Shaffer, is that their only purpose is to attack, and attempt to cause issues with our page, and our department. This has been an issue for 5 years.”
That’s from a letter that Chicopee Police Department Public Information Officer Michael Wilk wrote to the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin in an exchange about ongoing coverage of CPD’s mishandling of public records that one of these reporters, Maya Shaffer of Crit News and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, has been reporting since 2016.
While there have indeed been formal requests made for public information and several articles written about CPD misconduct, it is news to us that we are on the “attack.” Rather, our basic reportorial activity has pushed the department to resort to what appears to be unconstitutional and even potentially criminal tactics.
Last year, we published two stories about CPD, including one about how the department has hosted 24 community outreach events at Chick-fil-A, telling those who are concerned about the fast food giant’s anti-LGBTQ track record, “They are a great company. … End of discussion.” In apparent retribution for that coverage, CPD blocked both the Crit News Twitter account and Shaffer’s personal Facebook account from its official social media pages. That despite prior court rulings that suggest such maneuvers violate the First Amendment.
The blocks are part of a pattern of problematic online behavior. Wilk, who runs the CPD’s social media and makes press appearances, is the public face of the department. As of this writing, under his management the department blocked 75 accounts on social media platforms (30 on Facebook; 45 on Twitter). Wilk has also repeatedly deleted comments, which may be a criminal violation of the Massachusetts public records law.
We’re not the only journalists to detail abuses by CPD on Facebook. In July, the Valley Advocate reported on public concern about such subjective social media censorship, specifically calling out the department for encouraging cyber bullying by posting mugshots and arrest information, including addresses, about people who have yet to be tried.
In the Advocate piece, Wilk defends the decision to leave comments open: “We will not disable commenting, it would disable on everything and community interaction is important. Just because you do not like a comment doesn’t make it removable.” However, Wilk removes comments when he doesn’t like them, and he’s blocked users who criticize the department. In one case, local resident Gwendolynn Salvas had comments deleted and was blocked for raising concerns about the Chick-fil-A situation; in another example, Jeannie LisBeth says her words were deleted and she was blocked because she knocked Wilk for racially insensitive posts on his private accounts. Among other comments, the public information officer has called on the NYPD to shoot looters on sight during Hurricane Sandy, labeled those aligned with Black Lives Matter “terrorists,” claimed Al Sharpton sent Black Panthers to hunt and kill him, and spread Islamophobic and racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama.
The CPD is no stranger to scandal. The department faced criticism after members photographed a dead woman and shared the pictures, spurring Chicopee City Council members to pay the grieving family a $110,000 settlement. During that ordeal, Wilk defended soldiers posing with dead bodies overseas. We once reported an incident in which CPD officers choked a woman in custody; after the cops involved were cleared, department members claimed they acted admirably.
We have also impugned CPD violations of the public records law since 2015. In 2016, we published an article about a Chicopee attorney’s use of a private email account to handle records requests and have followed up with coverage of how the department ignored orders from Secretary Galvin’s office to turn over records.
More recently, Crit News asked Galvin to force CPD to change its Facebook policy. The secretary’s office subsequently asked the department to explain the deletions, to which Wilk responded with the aforementioned letter claiming they are under attack. In the correspondence, Wilk expressed concern that someone could “get out of hand, insult others, or violate Facebook.” As for the attacks the officer pinned on one of these journalists—over the past five years, Shaffer has published about a dozen articles on the department and from early 2016 until mid-2019 did not engage with CPD at all.
We also requested an internal affairs file and pay records for Wilk. After 25 business days and an order from Galvin, we were told that the former do not exist. CPD, it appears, has not documented any of the complaints about its information chief and his use of social media despite it being reported on. Wilk’s pay records took months to arrive; after our request was ignored in violation of the law, Galvin’s office ordered CPD to respond. The records show that Wilk has made $867,740 in the past 10 years, which hasn’t stopped him from complaining on his personal Twitter account about how his tax dollars are wasted on EBT and feeding hungry people who smoke cigarettes.
As this article was being written, after about a month and a half of darkness, CPD unblocked our accounts. It’s unclear why, but we had brought our concerns to the Chicopee mayor, Attorney General Maura Healey, Secretary Galvin, and others. Meanwhile, in the time since our reporting about CPD and Chick-fil-A, the department hosted another event at the restaurant, even as it blocked comments that were critical of the relationship and removed the event from its Facebook event page after the event was complete.
We filed a complaint with Healey’s civil rights division while we were still blocked, but they declined to pursue the matter. With the AG’s office refusing to address the issue, governmental social media accounts may continue to block users across the state, while in Chicopee, Wilk, who has no disciplinary file despite having broken the records law repeatedly, can continue to silence pro-LGBTQ voices.
As he tells it, reporters are attacking his department.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism with CriticalMA. To see more reporting like this, please donate at givetobinj.org.