City officials mull review of Holyoke Police Department


Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2021 11:43:08 AM

HOLYOKE — The City Council’s Public Safety Committee is considering the possibility of an audit of the Holyoke Police Department’s structure, policies and practices.

That was the topic of conversation when the committee met last Wednesday to discuss the idea of a police department assessment from Holyoke Community College criminal justice professor Nicole Hendricks, Police Chief Manny Febo and residents who had served on former mayor Alex Morse’s stalled Civilian Review Committee.

The incident that sparked Wednesday’s conversation, though not mentioned directly, was a viral video that HPD patrolman Rafael Roca posted on social media last month in which he levied allegations of corruption, misbehavior and discrimination within the department. At-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi referenced the allegations indirectly after noting that the department is in transition; Febo is retiring and Police Capt. David Pratt is soon taking over as chief.

“There have been rumors floating about about what’s happening behind closed doors at the department,” Lisi said. “I’m really not interested in working off rumors, and I don’t think our police department is served well by having to work under conditions where there are rumors.”

Presenting to the group was Hendricks, who studies policing at HCC, including police-community relations. She described the range of assessments — from data and reports the City Council can request to reviews that independent agencies can conduct — the city could consider. Collecting data is essential, she said, and the first step is to ask the community what public safety and police effectiveness mean to them.

“We measure inputs, we look at how much we’re spending on public safety, we want to know what the outputs are,” Hendricks said. “It can’t be simply crime rates or arrest trends, that’s just not enough.”

Hendricks said that in the absence of systematic information about police department performance, it’s very difficult for those agencies to discuss how their performance has changed over time and to make strategic and intentional decisions. She also spoke about what kinds of assessments municipalities across the country have conducted, including some local communities who have created task forces to look into their own departments’ practices.

Many outside assessments look at a wide range of metrics, Hendricks said, from best practices to the efficacy of particular facets of departments, such as community relations or department culture. She also discussed the various ways communities can collect feedback from residents, through citizen surveys or focus groups, for example.

When asked about the cost of such consulting work, Hendricks noted that there are plenty of data the City Council itself can request.

“You don’t have to hire or contract with an outside consultant to ask for an annual report,” she said as an example, noting that the council could discuss what metrics it wanted to see in that report. “Lots of police agencies produce annual reports. Some are better than others.”

Some nearby communities that have put together task forces to assess their own police departments include Easthampton, which worked with Hendricks, and Northampton. Hendricks said that the limit of such groups is that they are often given a short time frame — six months, for example — to accomplish their work.

Holyoke too formed a civilian group to look at its own police department. However, the Civilian Review Committee, formed by Morse, suffered from a lack of resources and made no formal reform recommendations. One of its members acknowledged, when asked by Ward 2 Councilor and committee chairman Terence Murphy, that there was little follow-up from Morse’s office with the group.

Some of the members of Holyoke’s review committee were present at the meeting, including Vanessa Martínez, who noted that any community engagement efforts have to be a long-term commitment. Another member, Erin Callahan, noted that the state recently passed a police reform bill, adding that it would be wise to focus an assessment of Holyoke’s department on new requirements in that law and how to bring Holyoke into compliance.

Febo spoke at several moments in the meeting, stressing that he feels the city’s police already do much of the work that was suggested. He said he welcomes any of the efforts described Wednesday, but that he felt the department simply needs to better communicate with citizens.

Febo’s tenor changed a bit, however, when the topic of civilian oversight bodies came up. Hendricks noted that Pittsfield has set up a police advisory and review board, which looks at department rules and reviews civilian complaints.

“I’m all for citizen input,” Febo said. “When you’re talking about review boards of the police department … it’s just a whole different subject.”

Lisi stressed at one point during that meeting that she felt she has always supported the police department when budget time comes around every year, but she said that the department has gotten to a point where it “feels a little bit like a black box.”

“We’re supporting the police department with about 10% of the city’s budget, and I’m not really sure we understand exactly what we’re doing and how it’s literally serving the community. And so I hope by collecting some data, understanding what we’re doing, we can become a bit more mission-driven,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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