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Suffolk DA Investigating Former MBTA Officer For Alleged Excessive Force On Black Man05:36
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A MBTA bus (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A MBTA bus (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins' office announced Monday that it is investigating alleged abuse by a former MBTA police officer who filed a misleading report about his actions against a 63-year-old homeless man.

Officer Nicholas Morrissey allegedly dragged the man, who is Black, from an MBTA bus at Forest Hills Station on April 28. Morrissey, who is white, then allegedly put his knee on the man's back for 20 seconds, holding him down, and then pushed his head into the pavement before dragging the man out of the bus lane.

The man, who was intoxicated, suffered abrasions to his face, according to the DA's office. Morrissey filed a report on the incident claiming that the man had lost his balance while attempting to spit at Morrissey. The officer wrote in the report that when the man started to fall Morrissey grabbed the man's shoulders and redirected him.  The officer said the man injured himself when he fell through the bus door and hit his forehead on the pavement.

But Morrissey's report does not match up with video of the incident, according to the DA's office.

"Although it is unusual for my office to comment on ongoing investigations, the behaviors of law enforcement personnel must be held to a higher standard and require transparency," Rollins said in a statement. "I want to thank and highly commend the leadership of the MBTA Police for bringing this matter to my office. Without their coming forward, we would not have been made aware of Morrissey’s concerning behavior. This type of leadership by law enforcement management must be commended and should be emulated."

The incident was first reported by the Boston Globe Monday. Morrissey resigned from the police department before any disciplinary action could be taken. His supervisor has been placed on administrative leave.

"This matter is still an open investigation and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further other than we are aware of the incident," Transit Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan said. "We took quick decision action and the officer is no longer a member of the Transit Police."

The incident comes amid growing scrutiny over law enforcement tactics and nationwide protests over police killings of Black people. That includes George Floyd, who died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Transit advocates say the MBTA incident brings up other cases of excessive force by T officers. Last year, transit officers were charged with allegedly beating a homeless man and trying to cover it up.

"Unfortunately, I am not surprised," said Mela Miles, the director of the T Riders Union at the advocacy group Alternatives for Community and Environment.

Miles said these most recent allegations of abuse remind her of a 2014 incident at the bus station in what was then called Dudley Square, now Nubian Square. A MBTA police officer and her partner beat and pepper-sprayed a Black woman when she tried to call 911 to report their harsh treatment of another Black woman. Surveillance videos captured the incident.

The officer, Jennifer Garvey, was charged and eventually sentenced to six months in jail. The woman who was beaten also sued the MBTA and the case was settled. The MBTA improved its citizen complaint system and made policy changes after this incident to monitor MBTA officer behavior and provide aggression management training.

But six years later, Miles said more needs to be done to stop this type of abuse.

"You would think that someone would think twice because everything is being documented through video cameras, whether it's someone's cellphone or whether it's the camera on the bus," Miles said. "The cameras are not lying. They're telling the truth and the truth is an ugly scene in America in 2020. We're getting a 20/20 view of what's happening in America. And kneeling on someone's back and smashing their head into the pavement, and then saying they fell? This is crazy."

Jarred Johnson, the director of Transit Matters, said he doesn't think incidents like the one at Forest Hills happen often but he has heard from Black youths that have had rough interactions with transit police.

"It shouldn't take a death for us to really look and make sure that our law enforcement agencies are doing what they need to be doing," Johnson said.

He also noted that just last month, a former transit officer was charged with raping two women while on duty. Johnson said the larger conversation about police misconduct, reform efforts and law enforcement budgets are crucial right now.

"A rule is only good if people actually follow it," Johnson said. "So it's a 'yes and.' Let's do the reform and let's also look at can we reallocate money towards the things that prevent those interactions from ever happening. And then let's make sure that we're getting rid of bad officers."

Some advocates say the Forest Hills station allegations underscore the need address housing and homelessness.

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless associate director Kelly Turley said the officer's alleged actions are "horrifying," but not shocking. She said that's because people experiencing homelessness often face high rates of discrimination and violence in public places, including public transit.

"And we're punishing people when they are meeting their basic human needs to sleep, to rest, to be at places while they're experiencing homelessness," Turley said. "And so I think it's really a time to really reflect as a larger community about the basic human rights that are not being respected."

Turley said her organization is supporting a bill that's currently at the State House that aims to protect people experiencing homelessness from harassment in public places, including by officers and public officials or employees.

In her statement, Rollins said instances where there is an unlawful use of force diminish the public's trust. She also said "the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants who work honorably and diligently" to keep people safe.

This segment aired on June 23, 2020.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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