Gazette review of Amherst’s internal police investigations show officer misconduct rare

  • Amherst Police Department, photographed in June. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Police Department, photographed in June. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Police Department, photographed in June. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Amherst Police Department is shown in June. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Police Department, photographed in June. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 10/11/2022 8:02:57 PM

AMHERST — An analysis of the Amherst Police Department’s internal affairs files over a 12-year period finds a relatively small number of investigations into officer misconduct. And in a vast majority of those cases, the department concluded that its officers behaved appropriately.

Those are the findings of a Gazette review of the Police Department’s internal affairs files. In response to a December 2020 public records request — and four subsequent appeals to the state’s supervisor of records — the department late last year turned over reports from the 23 internal investigations it conducted from 2009-2020. During that time, the department investigated at least 20 of its officers for possible misconduct. Of the 16 investigations initiated by a civilian complaint, one resulted in an officer being disciplined.

The department declined to release complete records of several investigations over that time span, including the names of officers involved in two separate domestic violence cases in 2010 and 2016, the details of which have been completely redacted. The department also withheld a 2009 investigation into “the medical concerns” of two unnamed employees and has extensively redacted a 2020 finding that an officer violated rules, stating that “the matter is still open before the Court.”

Large sections of the documents the department provided to the Gazette are redacted, including the discipline that officers faced when found to have violated department policies, significant portions of citizen complaints and, in some cases, the rules officers were said to have violated.

In a phone interview, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said that the department takes all citizens’ complaints seriously and investigates them thoroughly. The fact that the department had so few of those complaints — and even fewer complaints brought against officers by supervisors — is a good thing, he said. Citizens can file those complaints with the Police Department, town administrator or Human Rights Commission.

“I’ve always said I think we have one of the most highly trained and professional agencies not just in New England but in the country,” Livingstone said. “I’m proud of the work we do.”

Livingstone declined to comment on any specific cases. The Gazette also reached out individually to all of the officers who are named in this article, none of whom responded to those requests for comment.

‘Additional entityof scrutiny’

The records the department turned over include allegations of excessive force, discourtesy, unlawful arrests and failure to appropriately attend to emergencies or crime.

Of the 23 cases the department released to the Gazette, officers were disciplined in at least seven; one of the domestic violence cases contains no information about whether any disciplinary action resulted. Of those seven cases resulting in discipline, six were initiated by a superior officer and one came from a civilian complaint.

Those results are similar to findings from other local police departments, which have infrequently sustained charges against an officer when a civilian complains. After the Massachusetts Legislature passed a new police reform bill in late 2020 that, among other measures, opened up police misconduct records to greater scrutiny under the state’s public records law, the Gazette requested the internal affairs records of four local police departments: Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton and Holyoke.

For example, a Gazette analysis of the 135 internal affairs investigations the Northampton Police Department conducted from 2010 through 2020 found that officers named in a civilian complaint were disciplined 10% of the time, compared with 79% who had charges sustained against them when another officer initiated an internal investigation.

Amherst budgeted for 48 police officers in total in fiscal 2022, compared to Northampton’s 60 officers and Holyoke’s 120 officers and 24 reserves.

State oversight

The Amherst Police Department and others across the state were required to compile their internal affairs investigations for the state’s newly created Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, also known as the POST Commission. That body will now keep track of police departments’ internal affairs records, oversee certification of police officers and recommend when they should be dismissed for misconduct. Livingstone said that he and other police chiefs are welcoming that change.

“I think it brings some trust to the public to know that there is a process out of the hands of a local entity,” he said. “To know there’s an additional entity of scrutiny.”

Similar to Northampton, the town of Amherst has also begun a Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service program, or CRESS, that is sending unarmed employees to calls that police officers had responded to — calls not involving violence or serious crime. And in a handful of tense situations described in Amherst’s internal affairs files over the years, CRESS responders would have shown up instead of police had the agency existed previously.

In its reports last year, the town’s Community Safety Working Group, from which CRESS emerged, said that the new agency’s mission will include “dismantling systemic racism through racially aware safety and social services to persons of all races with a conscious anti-racism focus.” The group also recommended the creation of a Police Resident Oversight Board, which the town is now working to develop.

In March, the town hired as the new CRESS leader Earl Miller, the regional director of recovery for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. CRESS started its work in September. Miller said the program is an answer to those in town who feel that in certain situations, the police and fire departments are not the appropriate people to show up. And because of his own experiences as a Black man in America, he said he understands that, recalling a time when ambulances and police showed up outside his own home.

“I was already thinking about ending my life,” he said. “And now there’s a person with a gun in my home and now people are telling me where I’m going to go. I’m going to go to a hospital, this austere place.”

Amherst’s IA reports

The officer named most in the Amherst Police Department’s internal investigation files is patrol officer Thomas Clark, who has faced two allegations of excessive force and one complaint of discourtesy since 2016. The department found no wrongdoing on Clark’s part in those investigations.

“I don’t understand why this officer hit me,” a woman wrote in Spanish on a 2018 complaint form regarding one of those allegations. Clark and fellow officer Scott Gallagher, now a sergeant, had responded to an argument between the woman, whose name is redacted from the document, and her husband, whom the officers arrested. It is unclear which officer the woman accused of “abuse.”

The woman said she wanted police to respond with more compassion to civilians. The department’s investigation notes that the woman was unwilling to schedule a follow-up interview with police, and that a witness’s account matched that of officers, who said the woman attempted to pull them off her husband during the arrest.

“I found that this incident was highly volatile and that officers Gallagher and Clark, had they chosen too, would have been justified in escalating their level of force during this encounter,” Capt. Ronald Young wrote in his investigative report.

In another case, Clark and other officers responded in December 2016 to a house at 502 Main St., where three men were reportedly fighting. The men ran away, the investigative report says. Eventually Clark chased down one of those men and arrested him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The man Clark chased “has steadfastly maintained that he cooperated with the officer when he heard him behind him, stopped, turned around, put his hands up and at that point and time the officer ... struck him with a closed fist on the left hand side of his face,” the report says. Clark, meanwhile, said that he “pushed [redacted] back away from me to create distance and ordered him to the ground.”

Lt. Gabriel Ting found that Clark’s use of force was consistent with department rules and training, noting that the complainant declined an interview and didn’t wish to further pursue the issue.

In another complaint about an officer’s use of force, a man alleged that in 2010 four officers stopped his car, pointed guns at him and his passenger then threw him to the ground.

“The black officer push me down,” the complaint reads. “The other white officer put his foot on my back/I told him I couldn’t breath and he handcuff me.”

Police said the “felony motor vehicle stop” was made because officers were searching for the man’s son, who was wanted on a charge of attempted murder. Lt. William Menard found that then-Sgt. Brian Johnson — the shift supervisor that morning — and the officers under his command did not violate any department policies or procedures.

In the one civilian complaint that resulted in discipline at the Amherst Police Department since 2009, veteran officer David Rhoades was found to have violated multiple policies, including one concerning victims’ rights, when somebody accused him of being “unprofessional” and dismissive to a UMass Amherst student who was the victim of an assault that left him with chipped teeth and a concussion. The department’s investigation found that Rhoades failed to investigate the case or document the incident in an effort to “avoid doing this work.”

The department opened another investigation of Rhoades in 2016, just two months before his retirement after a 23-year career in Amherst. That internal investigation found him derelict of duty, having violated five separate department policies during his response to a traffic collision. The Police Department report on the incident is heavily redacted, leaving only the policies Rhoades was found to have violated: responding to calls and incidents, handling injuries or illness, dealing with people with mental illness, responding to a traffic collision and rules on professional conduct.

In 2018, a mother filed a misconduct complaint after calling the police for a wellness check on her adult son who was “having a psychotic break.” “I knew it was a bad idea at the time,” she said of calling the police for a wellness check. “But it was what I was told to do by the forensic psychiatrist who I had spoke to early that day.”

The woman said police were soon on top of her son after finding what she said was his fishing knife in his pants waist. The police charged him with assault with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery on a police officer — charges she described as “trumped up.”

In its investigative report, the department said the man had 105 documented encounters with police since 2003, including some violent in nature. They said the man reached for his “waist line” and attempted to flee before “resisting” and “fighting” officers. The department’s report found the woman’s complaint “not supported by sufficient evidence” and the two sergeants investigated, Richard MacLean and Jamie Reardon, were not disciplined.

Civilian response model

The town’s CRESS program is now responding to such wellness checks, as well as calls involving, for example, mental health issues, trespassing and truancy.

CRESS responders are also the first to arrive to calls related to substance abuse. That could have come into play in a May 2020 call when police responded to a “young patient who was overdosing.” Afterward, the police opened an internal investigation into an officer, Dominick Corsetti, who after responding to the call was found to have refused to provide the opiate-blocking medication naloxone to the person. Corsetti said he didn’t believe he had been given a direct order to administer naloxone, according to the internal affairs report. The department found Corsetti insubordinate and disciplined him after its investigation. 

“The patient did in fact need the drug as was dictated by the situation, and responded once the Amherst Fire Department arrived and provided it,” Capt. Ronald Young wrote in his investigation into the incident. “Thankfully the patient survived.”

The CRESS agency will also be the first to respond to calls involving youth and the schools. Such a call would have played out this summer when a video was posted on social media showing a town police officer, in early July, telling several detained teenagers: “You don’t have rights at this point … you’ve lost it, all right, you’ve lost it, you’re not an adult.”

While CRESS responders had been hired already, they were in the midst of an eight-week training regimen when a noise complaint call came into the police station. So instead of CRESS, police responded to the incident.

In a statement, members of the former Community Safety Working Group said that police have continued the oversurveillance of apartment complexes in town and that youth who have no spaces of their own “are being criminalized, youth and community members are being traumatized and mistreated, while an abuse of power and fear of retaliation continues.” They also asked that noise complaints fall under the community responders program.

“We are also urging town leaders to allow CRESS to take on noise complaint calls so incidents such as this do not turn into detainment of youth, abuse of power, and a lack of individual and parental rights for BIPOC community members,” their statement reads.

The town’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Pamela Nolan Young, investigated the incident and found that the officer’s statements, while “clearly erroneous,” did not rise to the  level of abuse of power. The Police Department is still fin alizing its own report on the incident.

For Miller, the CRESS director, the incident has became a learning opportunity for his agency’s responders during their training. Responders discussed how they would approach a noise complaint call with youth as an agency that is “all carrot” and “no stick.”

“I want folks to know that I understand what it is like to be a young person of color in western Mass.,” Miller said.

Their celebrations are never accepted, sadness is pathologized, grief ignored and anger never tolerated, he said.

“My commitment is to be different.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at newsroom@gazettenet.com.
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