Holyoke officials debate steps to improve police department following audit
Officials in Holyoke, Massachusetts, this week debated how best to move forward after an independent audit released last month found the police department poses a “substantial risk” to the city.
During an at-times tense meeting Monday evening of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, the firm Municipal Resources Inc. presented its report, which Mayor Joshua Garcia had commissioned to review the police department’s practices and organizational structures.
The firm found that the department is chronically understaffed, undertrained and not following some of its own outdated policies.
Present at the meeting were city councilors, the mayor and Police Chief David Pratt. Garcia began by acknowledging that everybody in the room had “a shared desire to see things be better.”
“How we get there is where all of our thoughts differ,” Garcia said. “And that’s OK. For the first time in a long time, a path has been created to get us here into this very space to start these discussions of what the landscape is like at the department, identify what is it we do well and where are we falling short.”
One of the firm’s biggest recommendations was for the Holyoke Police Department to pursue accreditation to ensure the department and its officers follow best practices.
The consultants — all three of whom previously worked as police chiefs in New England — said by taking the steps to become accredited, the department could mitigate the risk of being sued, reducing the financial risk the city currently faces. And there is plenty of risk in some of the department’s current practices, the MRI team noted, from not training officers to use their stun guns to failing to provide basic field training.
“You’re in a position now where you’re enabling successful suits, frankly,” consultant David Kurz told the city’s officials.
However, Pratt cautioned that accreditation won’t come to the department anytime soon.
“Let’s not leap off the ledge and jump to accreditation,” he said before offering an analogy. “It’s like we’re at the base camp of Mount Everest and we got to climb that mountain. We’re not going to run out there in our shorts and our T-shirt because we’re not going to make it very far. We need a good team and all the equipment to do it and then we’ll start tackling that mountain.”
Pratt was largely referring to the topic of staffing, which he said is central to the department’s woes. MRI’s report found patrol officers’ workload “so demanding” that traffic enforcement is “virtually non-existent” in the city. City councilors highlighted that finding during Monday’s meeting.
MRI’s report identified two big reasons why the city has fewer patrol officers on the streets than similar communities: compensatory time given to officers in lieu of overtime and a wide range of specialty assignments for patrol officers. Kurz said that the city had generously negotiated past contracts with its two police unions. He doubted the unions would easily give up those provisions.
“Somebody gave the farm away and you’re now paying for it,” he told the elected officials.
Patrol officer union president Manuel Rivera did not respond to an email requesting comment on MRI’s findings.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, supervisors’ union president Andy DiNapoli said his union did give up some sick days in their latest contract. He said if the city wants a traffic bureau again, for example, the city will have to fund the necessary staffing to make that a reality.
“We do need the personnel, no doubt about it,” he said. “These are things the chief has to think about when we’re manning our schedules. If we don’t have the personnel, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Some city councilors noted, however, that it’s not just the police department that could use help.
“Low staff, lack of funding, you can insert whichever department as a title and then put those complaints under that and it can be any city department in the city of Holyoke,” at-large City Councilor Jose Maldonado Velez said.
Maldonado Velez and fellow at-large Councilor Israel Rivera both pushed back against part of the report in which police officers suggested the councilors were “threats” to the department. The report noted that Maldonado Velez referred to the police as a “gang” during a City Council meeting last year and that Rivera was previously convicted of a felony.
“I’m harmless,” Rivera said. “The only thing I’ve done since I got out of prison about 10 years ago is good. So I guess that’s why I would be considered a threat, right? Someone with a criminal record and succeeding and continuing to do things positive in a positive way.”
The consultants also identified the department’s internal investigations as a “high-level problem area” because of a policy requiring civilians to sign a complaint against an officer instead of investigating all such complaints, even those made anonymously. A recent NEPM investigation found that from 2010 through 2019, the HPD rarely disciplined officers accused of wrongdoing by civilians.
The audit wasn’t the only item on the committee’s agenda Monday evening.
Maldonado Velez and Rivera, together with Ward 4 Councilor Kocayne Givner, introduced a proposal to study whether to create a community-responder program in the city. Nearby Amherst and Northampton have started similar programs, in which unarmed civilians respond to certain calls currently handled by police.
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.