Audit finds Holyoke Police Department poses 'substantial risk' to city it serves

Holyoke City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Holyoke City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A newly released independent audit of the Holyoke Police Department found the HPD poses a “substantial risk” to the city it serves.

Last August, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia hired the New Hampshire-based consulting firm Municipal Resources, Inc., to audit the city’s police department.

That decision came after a police officer publicly alleged corruption within the department and a Daily Hampshire Gazette investigation found high levels of overtime worked by some of the department’s highest-paid officers.

NEPM obtained a copy of the completed report, which says the HPD suffers from chronic understaffing and low morale.

The audit also says policies are outdated and not always followed, and there’s a lack of basic field training for officers. It lists a number of weak points in the department.

“...[A]bsence of governing policy, not adhering to the best practices of the profession in critical areas of law enforcement delivery, terms of collective bargaining agreements, and other factors represent a systemic contribution to physical, financial, and reputational risk to the police department and city.”

Mayor Garcia was unavailable for an interview Tuesday. Police Chief David Pratt did not respond to an email requesting an interview.

The way internal investigations are handled also came under the auditors’ scrutiny. The firm criticized an HPD policy requiring civilians to sign a complaint against an officer instead of investigating all such complaints, even those that are made anonymously. A recent NEPM investigation found that from 2010 through 2019, the HPD rarely disciplined officers accused of wrongdoing by civilians.

“Chronically diminished staffing levels” was a major focus of the report — which the firm referred to as a “risk review” and not a financial audit.

“This lone issue permeated virtually every topic discussed and was projected as the bane for everything the agency was attempting to accomplish but could not,” the report says. The consultants found patrol officers’ workload “so demanding” that tasks such as traffic enforcement are “virtually non-existent.”

In interviews with patrol officers, some alleged that required 15-minute checks on prisoners are often skipped because officers assigned to that role are also responsible for taking reports in the lobby. MRI noted that, if true, that represents “significant liability to the city.”

“... [O]nly 64% of Holyoke's designated patrol personnel actually perform patrol duties,” the report concludes, noting that six comparable agencies in the state dedicate around 89% of their patrol forces to those duties. “The remaining 36% of the personnel of patrol rank are assigned to ancillary duties such as evidence oversight, record management, overseeing activities within the police facility, and even vehicle maintenance.”

The report says the city’s collective bargaining agreements with its police unions provide “generous annual leave allocation” and ensure that officers continue to work in positions that could be given to civilians, challenging the police department’s “effectiveness and efficiency.”

Staffing woes make overtime a necessary part of the department’s operations, the report says. But forced overtime — together with a perception that a segment of the City Council is not supportive of police — have contributed to low morale in the department, according to the report.

MRI sent a survey of 111 members of the department, 33 of whom responded. The report says 69% of the respondents do not believe the department is well managed, and 72% do not believe that “internal discipline for policy and rule violations are administered in a fair and consistent way.” Another 66% do not believe they receive adequate training.

MRI’s consultants were “astounded” at the lack of basic field training for Holyoke police officers. The audit describes such training as “the most important stage in the process of becoming a self-reliant police officer within the community.” Annual training on the use of Tasers and pepper spray was also lacking, the report said. And police administrators told the MRI team that they did not have enough ammunition left this fiscal year to re-qualify all members of the department.

The report notes that during MRI’s interviews with city councilors and City Hall staff, some expressed concern that the HPD had “repeatedly over-expended” grant money allotted to the department. The consultants said they did not conduct a financial audit as part of their work, suggesting the city should hire a financial auditor to review its grant-accounting practices across city government.

“The Holyoke Police is in dire need of additional support in the Finance Department,” the report says. “...[T]here is currently one civilian person doing all the accounting, including payroll. MRI recommends that the bookkeeping function of managing the grants be removed from the grant manager and put under the control of a civilian trained in bookkeeping and financial controls.”

MRI also expressed concern that the department has no inventory, tagging or tracking process for new equipment. The report describes a “cavalier approach” to maintenance of equipment, and notes the department “does not use a Request for Proposal … bidding process or engage with the established Massachusetts bidding program.”

One of MRI’s central recommendations is for the police department to pursue accreditation through a program that can provide an “outline for achieving organizational excellence.” And the firm suggested the department work with stakeholder groups to develop a strategic plan.

Mayor Garcia’s office said he intends to present the final report to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on March 6.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.



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