Records obtained under new Mass. law show Holyoke police dismiss nearly all civilian complaints
In 2016, Irving Concepcion says the Holyoke police pulled him over with their guns drawn, yanked him out of his car and slammed him down on the hood. He said they did the same to a few teenagers in the car with him, taking one of them to the ground, putting a knee to his back and arresting him.
“They kept trying to use the grabbing of the genitals to kind of quiet me down as a form of punishment and pain,” Concepcion said. “I kept yelling that they were violating our rights and they continued to search my vehicle against my will. No probable cause, there was no weapons, there was no reason to assume there were weapons.”
An officer told him “to shut my mouth or much more than my rights would be violated,” Concepcion wrote in a complaint he later filed with the police department. An officer ripped his work ID off his neck, he alleged, throwing it to the ground and saying, “F--- your program.”
In his internal report on the incident, HPD’s internal affairs officer, Manuel Reyes, said police pulled over Concepcion for a traffic violation. The youths, Reyes’ report alleged, were “Blood gang members who were under surveillance for their possible involvement in a shooting involving a school bus on the previous day.” He said the car’s “possibly armed occupants” made “furtive movements” and “refused to show their hands,” and that the officers on scene denied making the remarks Concepcion alleged.
For those reasons, Reyes cleared the officers of violating department policies.
That outcome — police officers facing no discipline after a civilian alleges wrongdoing — is hardly unique to Concepcion’s case.
NEPM has obtained a decade’s worth of civilian complaints against HPD officers and the department’s own internal investigations of them. 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.
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.
When the state Legislature passed its police reform bill, state Senate President Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland, described the legislation as “a necessary first step towards achieving systemic change through law enforcement accountability and transparency.”
That transparency has been slow to arrive, however. It took the HPD more than a year and a half to turn over its 69 internal investigations, all of which the department redacted to remove information about the person alleging misconduct. And the department has yet to turn over a single investigation initiated by department supervisors or other agencies, which include allegations of everything from untruthfulness to an “intercepted phone conversation revealing possible misconduct” from the Hampden County jail, according to the HPD’s log.
“The city of Holyoke is not alone in resisting transparency, and I think that’s the only way to describe an 18-month delay in providing access to records that clearly were public,” said Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney with the firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP who specializes in media and First Amendment law. “The police are among the very worst offenders under the current Massachusetts public records regime, even after all of the legislative progress that has been made.”
Pyle represented the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in the newspaper’s 2018 lawsuit against the city of Worcester over its police department’s illegal withholding of misconduct records. Last year, a judge ruled in favor of the newspaper and ordered the city to pay $5,000 in punitive damages and $100,000 in legal fees.
Pyle told NEPM that police departments and other public agencies will continue to withhold records or slow-roll their release until lawmakers improve the state’s public records law, which many have criticized as one of the least transparent in the country.
“It’s a problem within our commonwealth and it will continue to be a problem until we have an administrative agency that has teeth, that has enforcement power, that can punish municipalities and agencies when they withhold records improperly,” Pyle said. “We don’t have that today.”
Beyond changing the public records law, the 2020 police reform bill also created a new state agency, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which now tracks police departments’ internal investigations and can conduct its own “preliminary inquiries” into alleged misconduct.
In an interview, POST Commission Executive Director Enrique Zuniga said the agency’s investigations will eventually come before the full commission, which can go so far as to decertify officers found to have violated state standards — a “career-ending type of decision,” Zuniga said. “And that’s the ultimate way of holding police accountable from the commission’s perspective.”
But that work hasn’t fully gotten off the ground yet. So far, the commission has only suspended 19 officers statewide because they were either arrested, charged or indicted on a felony charge.
The police reform bill also required police departments to turn over data on their internal investigations to the commission, which pledged to make that information public last spring. That part of the commission’s work has yet to materialize either. The agency still has not released that data because of the need to clean up and validate the massive data set, according to Zuniga.
The HPD’s top brass did not respond to numerous requests for comment on this story. Reyes, Police Chief David Pratt and Capt. Matthew Moriarty, who handles communications for the department, all failed to answer numerous email and phone messages. Mayor Joshua Garcia also declined to sit down for an interview with NEPM.
NEPM also contacted all of the police officers mentioned in this story via email or phone. None of them provided comment on the civilian complaints they faced or the department’s investigation of them, and the heads of both the patrol officers’ union and supervisors’ union did not respond to questions from NEPM. Two officers did respond to say that department policies prohibit them from speaking to the press without permission from higher-ups.
What the Holyoke complaints show
Contained within the civilian complaints against HPD officers are allegations ranging from the mundane to the criminal, including accusations that officers violently beat suspects, swore at civilians, used racial slurs, fabricated charges and abused their power. One officer was accused of using his siren at a drive-thru window to get his ice cream more quickly. Another was accused of sexual assault while he was off duty.
In one 2011 complaint, a civilian alleged that during a traffic stop that involved Officer Jared Hamel, police held a gun to the civilian's head and knocked him unconscious, after which officers stomped on his face and dislocated his jaw. In the department’s investigation, police said they pulled him over for running a stop sign, then tried to tow his car after learning his license was suspended and registration revoked. The officers on the scene denied that they had drawn their weapons and challenged the extent of the man’s injuries; they said he refused to get out of the car and then reached for the center console.
“I find that the amount of force used was reasonably necessary under the circumstances,” the internal investigation concluded, noting that fellow officers described Hamel’s initial interaction with the man as “peaceful,” “calm and cooperative.”
Two of the civilian complaints that NEPM obtained alleged that police violently arrested students in the city’s schools.
In 2018, a man alleged that school resource officer Melvis Romero “abused his authority” when he threw the man’s son to the ground during the school day and arrested him, injuring his neck and shoulders in the process.
Reyes, the HPD captain who oversees internal investigations, said in his final report that the boy had let his twin brother and another student back into the building after they were suspended — a “major breach of security” because of shootings and gang activity in the community. When Romero put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and told him to go back to his classroom, Reyes said the boy “smacked” the officer's hand and swore at him. So Romero arrested him for assault and battery on a police officer.
The father said in his complaint that his boys had “been through a lot of trauma” made worse by now living in a homeless shelter, and that as a result they didn’t always react to what they were told to do. Now, he said, one of his sons was on pain medication because of the force Romero used to arrest him.
Reyes ultimately exonerated Romero. He wrote that because the boy “refused several times to place his hand behind his back so that he could be handcuffed, Officer Romero was forced to place him on the ground.”
“While on the ground, [redacted] placed his hands under him refusing to place his hands behind him forcing Officer Romero to again employ more force to force his hands behind him,” Reyes wrote.
Some people who filed a complaint with the HPD said that officers’ actions impacted their lives long after the alleged misconduct took place.
In 2017, for example, a civilian accused Holyoke police officer Patrick Leahy of putting him “through hell for almost a year.”
The man alleged that Leahy tackled him to the ground at 2 a.m. after he had left a club, put a gun to his head and told him to “shut up” when he asked what was going on. The man, whose name the department redacted, said Leahy accused him of raising a handgun as he crossed the street in front of Leahy’s cruiser.
The man alleged there was a problem with the arrest report Leahy later filed, saying it “contained outright lies and falsehoods.” He said he never had a gun and never even stepped into the street. Prosecutors pressed charges against him until the day he showed up for his trial, when he said they informed him they were dropping the case.
“Officer Leahy made up a substantial portion of his report,” the man wrote. “Instead of being a man and admitting he made a mistake about seeing me with a firearm, he chose to remain silent and never appeared in court.”
The Hampden District Attorney's Office told NEPM it was unable to confirm this report or comment on it without more information, like the name of the defendant, which was redacted from the public records response.
After nearly a year, Reyes closed the department’s investigation of the incident, saying he was unable to reach the man who complained.
Some complaints involve allegations that police officers broke the law.
In one 2013 complaint, for example, a civilian alleged they watched police officer Charles Monfett pull up next to his brother in his police cruiser and hand him “a bag of pot.”
“We also overheard how it was just recovered from someone at Jones Point,” the complaint alleges. “We reenter the clubhouse, as we go back to the pool table the brother that just received the pot starts to brag about having a brother as a Holyoke police officer and that he gets stuff like pot and can make some money that way.”
In its investigation, the HPD found the allegations against Monfett “not sustained” because “there was insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegation.”
Reported difficulty filing complaints to HPD
The 69 complaints that NEPM obtained are just the ones that civilians managed to file with the HPD in the first place.
Concepcion, who alleged that police unjustifiably yanked him out of his car at gunpoint in 2016, said he attempted to file a complaint against the officers that day, but police at the station told him they had no complaint forms on hand. Concepcion alleged that he returned again and again — for hours at a time — until an HPD supervisor finally interviewed him three weeks later. And he said that when he would leave the station during those three weeks, police would pull his car over.
“They would just tell me to just stop doing what I was doing, it’s not going to go nowhere, it’s only going to cause me more hardships and problems,” Concepcion said.
Concepcion is not the first to allege that the HPD resisted taking his complaint. In another case filed in 2018, a city resident wrote on their complaint form: “It shouldn’t take over an hour to get this paperwork to file a complaint.”
In 2017, former Holyoke resident Janette Hernandez Pagan sued the city, claiming HPD officers beat her 12-year-old son unconscious in 2014. In court filings, Pagan’s lawyer called the HPD’s process of reviewing civilian complaints “baroque,” pointing to the fact that James Neiswanger, who was the police chief at the time, said in a deposition that before complaints were investigated, an administrator reviewed them to determine if they had “merit.”
“Hernandez Pagan attempted to file a complaint,” the lawsuit alleged. “She testified she complained about her son’s beating, was assured the matter was being investigated but was never instructed on what other steps she could take to formally complain against police.”
The city settled that lawsuit for $65,000 in 2020. The HPD’s log of complaints and internal investigations contains no evidence the department ever opened an internal investigation into the incident.
A sense that 'nothing is going to change'
Tensions soared last fall between some Holyoke residents and the HPD amid a debate in the City Council over the department’s desire to purchase the controversial gunfire-location technology ShotSpotter. During the debate, City Councilor José Maldonado Velez referred to the police as “a gang.”
“It literally is,” he said in the meeting. “They’re there to protect each other, to look out for each other, and to come out with force in our community. … The police, for me, was used as a reminder to stay in my place. I am a Latino. You’re supposed to act a certain way, talk a certain way. That’s what police was for. It was not there to help me.”
The backlash was swift from the city’s two police unions, which called on Maldonado Velez to apologize or recuse himself from votes related to the police department.
“The comments are concerning, erroneous, harmful, but most importantly divisive,” Capt. Moriarty, the president of the HPD’s supervisors union, said at a press conference held specifically to address Maldonado Velez’s comments.
In an interview with NEPM, Maldonado Velez said his critique of the police department is not about individual officers but rather the system of policing. Growing up Puerto Rican in the Flats neighborhood of Holyoke — one of the city’s majority-Hispanic “lower wards” — Maldonado Velez said he heard plenty of stories from those whom that system harmed.
“You hear from those that came before us saying the police would kick you back down to the Flats; you couldn’t be seen up above High Street,” Maldonado Velez said. In his own time, he said that he witnessed classmates incarcerated as part of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
In August, the city of Holyoke hired a firm to audit its police department, including its internal affairs processes. That decision was made after a Holyoke police officer publicly alleged corruption within the HPD and a Daily Hampshire Gazette investigation found what some characterized as “excessive overtime” in the department, including among some of its highest-paid officers. The mayor’s office said it expects the report to be completed in the coming days.
When presented with NEPM’s findings, Maldonado Velez said the lack of discipline resulting from civilian complaints is “just not surprising” and not unique to Holyoke.
“Who’s policing the police?” he asked. “It’s not clear and it doesn’t exist. The police are policing themselves.”
Maldonado Velez is not the first city councilor who has come under fire from Holyoke’s police unions. In 2014, the president of the patrol-officer union wrote a scathing letter to the City Council denouncing Councilors Rebecca Lisi and Jossie Valentin for marching in a Black Lives Matter protest where he said some protesters used “anti-police rhetoric.”
“Since that moment, it was very evident to me that some members of the Holyoke Police Department were not happy with me and with Rebecca,” Valentin told NEPM in an interview from Puerto Rico, where she now lives. “We definitely had examples of moments where we felt we were treated differently because of our activism and there was an underlying tone of retaliation.”
In fact, a year later, Valentin filed a civilian complaint against an HPD officer over his “rudeness” to her at the scene of a car crash involving her wife — treatment Valentin alleged was related to her political stances. Reyes — the internal affairs officer — found the officer’s actions “justified and proper,” and consistent with standard protocols for crash-scene response and safety.
Valentin, who went on to work as a staffer for U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, told NEPM that she filed the complaint because she wanted to push back against her constituents’ dominant perception: that there was no point in filing a complaint against the HPD.
“I think the common response is, ‘Why bother?’” she said.
When told of NEPM’s findings that only three officers had civilian complaints “sustained” against them over a decade, Valentin said she’s not surprised. “I think it just really supports the theory of nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change,” she said.
Broader difficulties with police accountability
Academic studies have shown it’s fairly common for police departments to “sustain” a small percentage of civilian complaints.
That’s according to William Terrill, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. A former military police officer, Terrill has for many years researched civilian complaints against police officers in cities across the country, including a 2016 study that looked at departments in eight different cities.
“It varies, obviously, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and time to time, but generally the studies have found that the sustained rate, if you sum them all up, is usually about 10%,” Terrill said.
Terrill said that often, complaints aren’t sustained because civilians have a misperception about what is, and isn’t, a violation of department policy. He also said that academics have struggled to answer the question of whether a complaint against an officer represents a problem officer, a productive officer or some combination of the two.
“If you go behind the curtain of law enforcement, oftentimes you’ll hear officers say the surest way not to get a complaint is not to interact with the public,” he said. “Not to stop anyone.”
Terrill said the best practice is to allow civilians to file complaints against officers in multiple venues — in-person or online, like the POST Commission now allows on its website — and to be able to do so anonymously. When asked about allegations that the HPD made civilians wait in the police department to file a complaint, he described that as “an old-school, tried-and-true tactic of the agencies to keep their complaint level down.”
“You’re immediately going into this intimidating environment and you’re having to go up to the desk sergeant asking for this, and then you’re put on ice and made to sit there,” Terrill said.
In his 2016 study in the journal Police Quarterly, Terrill and fellow researcher Jason Ingram found that in cities that had police conducting internal investigations, but where an external civilian oversight agency reviewed their decisions, the department was "significantly more likely to sustain complaints." But he said other studies have found that civilian review boards have a minimal effect on accountability.
“I think the challenge with that is in most jurisdictions that have a civilian review board or some version of that, it’s very rare for that board to have investigatory powers,” Terrill said. “In other words, having the power to question the suspect, having the power to question the officer.”
Locally, the city of Pittsfield has a Police Advisory and Review Board. But critics have described that body as toothless. Last fall, five of the remaining six members of the board quit after they were blocked from reviewing the police department's internal report on the police killing of city resident Miguel Estrella.
Springfield this past year reinstituted a civilian Board of Police Commissioners to oversee the department and decide on officer discipline. The rollout has not been smooth, with commissioners sparring over internal rules and available resources. This followed years of battles between the mayor and City Council over control of the department and the effectiveness of a previous advisory panel, the Civilian Community Police Hearing Board.
The work of setting up a review board is difficult and time-intensive, Terrill said. And often, legal protections and collective bargaining agreements with police unions prevent those boards from interviewing officers, he added. He said cities would have to go “all in” to train civilians to do that work.
But for Concepcion, the man who alleged police abused their authority pulling him over in 2016, that’s exactly the kind of work Holyoke and other cities should be doing.
Concepcion said his experience with the HPD’s internal affairs system shows that there isn’t any accountability within the department. He said NEPM’s reporting points to a “they-against-us type of mentality and not really a serve-and-protect type mentality” within the police department, and that an external, non-biased party should be investigating allegations of misconduct.
“Nobody should get away with taking the law into their own hands and being above it,” he said. “And I think we’re allowing a lot of these police departments to be above it.”
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.