Holyoke Police Department sustained three out of 92 complaints
A decade’s worth of records show civilian complaints against cops never led to punishment
I want to direct you to an excellent piece of reporting by New England Public Media’s Dusty Christensen, who obtained a decade’s worth of complaints from the Holyoke Police Department:
In response to a public records request, the HPD has now turned over the 69 investigations it conducted from 2010 through 2019 into civilian complaints. The complaints allege HPD officers engaged in misconduct ranging from brutality and bullying to discourtesy and dishonesty. NEPM also obtained a handwritten log tracking all 156 investigations of its own officers the department conducted during those 10 years, including those initiated not by civilian complaints but by superior officers.
Out of the 92 times an officer was named in a civilian complaint, HPD’s top brass only “sustained,” or upheld, allegations against an officer three times: a dispatcher who received a verbal warning in 2012 when she was accused of “rudeness,” an officer who received a verbal warning after he released a 14-year-old’s booking photo to the press in 2018, and another officer who received additional training in 2013 after a group of civilians accused her of swearing at them and referring to them as “illegals.”
A handful of other officers were “spoken to” or “cautioned” by their superiors for other offenses, but the records show no evidence that the officers were disciplined for those violations of department rules.
The HPD is not the only local department that rarely disciplines officers based on civilian complaints. Similar records from the Northampton Police Department, for example, show that of the 90 times an officer faced a civilian complaint from 2010 and 2020, department superiors only disciplined officers nine times. And in Amherst, records show that during a 12-year period, the Amherst Police Department investigated 16 civilian complaints; in only one of those cases did an officer face discipline.
The public records law requires cities and towns to provide records within 25 business days (about five weeks) at most, but Christensen said it took the Holyoke Police Department a year and a half to provide him all the documents.
I don’t really want to spend much time commenting on this — I just want to encourage you to read the full story. Also consider giving Dusty Christensen a follow on Twitter.
One thing I do want to say: My guess is that the police department took so long to provide records partly because Christensen requested complete records about each complaint. If you’re interested in this type of information, you might be able to get some basic data from your local police department much quicker.
The 2020 police reform law, which is mentioned in Christensen’s story, created the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. The POST Commission is creating a public database of complaints against officers throughout the entire state. As part of this process, police departments were required to submit Excel spreadsheets with complaint data to the commission.
Although the POST Commission hasn’t published its database yet, you can send records requests to individual police departments to obtain the spreadsheets they submitted. Last year, I published data from Boston, Worcester, Springfield and other cities.
These spreadsheets have very limited information and are no substitute for reviewing all the records, but they’re a good start if you want to learn more about how police handle complaints in your community.
I also wanted to correct one thing the piece says about the public records law:
When Massachusetts lawmakers passed a sweeping police reform law in late 2020, one of the bill’s provisions opened up law enforcement misconduct investigations to greater scrutiny under the state’s public records law.
Previously, police departments were able to argue that those documents were “personnel records,” which are typically exempt from disclosure under the law. But the police reform bill changed that, clarifying that those investigations are not personnel records.
The public records law contains a privacy exemption that, among other things, protects “personnel” information, and the 2020 law did add language stating that this exemption “shall not apply to records related to a law enforcement misconduct investigation.”
However, there was already a 2003 Appeals Court ruling that internal affairs records are not personnel records under the privacy exemption. As far as I can tell, the updated language in the law hasn’t really changed anything.
The more important transparency change is the requirement that the POST Commission create a public database of complaints. But it’s still not clear when when that will become reality.
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