Holyoke councilors to discuss $65K settlement in police brutality case


  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2020 4:07:04 PM
Modified: 1/14/2020 4:06:14 PM

HOLYOKE — The City Council’s Finance Committee is set to discuss the possible $65,000 settlement of a civil rights lawsuit that accused Holyoke police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by Janette Hernandez Pagan on behalf of her son, who at the time of the incident was 12. The lawsuit said that police who were responding to a call of shots fired slammed the boy to the ground, beat him, knocked him unconscious and scraped his face against the road before arresting him. As a matter of policy, the Gazette does not identify minors in such cases.

Court records show the two sides reaching a settlement in October before the case was to go before a jury. The terms of the settlement are sealed, though the monetary amount of the settlement was revealed during a recent City Council meeting.

On Dec. 17, during discussions about supplemental budgets that Mayor Alex Morse presented to the City Council, At-Large City Councilor James Leahy questioned acting City Solicitor Crystal Barnes about several line items for legal claims. 

Barnes said that a $65,000 line item was for “the Pagan case.” She also pointed to a “very large lawsuit” that had recently ended in the city of Springfield — likely a reference to the $450,000 judgment Springfield paid a victim of police brutality after a jury ruled the city had been “deliberately indifferent to the civil rights of its citizens.”

“They got hit with quite a large judgment, so we are treading lightly,” Barnes told the City Council. “We feel it’s an adequate settlement for (the Pagan) case, especially in light of what is happening locally in our area with the court system dealing with these other civil rights cases.”

Morse declined to comment on the settlement. Pagan’s lawyer, Hector Pineiro, did not respond to phone and email messages. The Gazette was also unable to reach Charles Emma, the outside counsel that Holyoke hired to defend the city and the three officers accused in the suit — Thomas Leahy, James Dunn and Jabet Lopez.

The original civil complaint filed in Hampden County Superior Court alleged that on the evening of Feb. 8, 2014, Pagan’s son had followed a distraught neighbor who was holding a revolver and talking about killing himself. The boy attempted to convince the neighbor not to take his life and to drop his gun, the complaint and the boy’s deposition states.

Eventually, near the Vietnam Memorial Bridge, the neighbor began shooting his gun into the air and then at several cars, the boy said in his deposition. Police arrived, tackled and disarmed the man. The boy said that he was hiding behind a wall nearby and that he panicked and ran away from the scene. An officer caught up to him and pointed his gun at the boy, who complied with an order to get on his knees and put his hands behind his head, the boy alleged.

The lawsuit then alleges that police tackled the boy to the pavement, and “though he did not resist they began striking him with their feet and/or knees, a baton and/or with a hard blunt object on his back, ribs, and head until he passed out.” In court filings, Dunn admitted to punching the boy multiple times in the head; Leahy said he hit him on his legs and side; and Lopez said he hit the boy with his baton on his thigh and right rib cage area.

Booking photos from the night show large abrasions on the boy’s face. The civil complaint also states the boy suffered other injuries such as a concussion, a deviated nasal septum and contusions on his body. 

The boy spent the night in a juvenile detention center, and, more than a year later, the city dropped all charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct against him.

The city, in its court filings, argued that the actions of the three police officers who responded to the scene were reasonable and justified and did not violate the boy’s constitutional rights.

In court filings, the defendants’ lawyer said that the officers responded to radio reports of three males on the bridge shooting firearms into the air, giving them the impression that there were multiple guns at the scene. 

Leahy and Dunn said in depositions that the boy got into a “squatting” position when asked to “get down on the ground,” making them think he would run. The plaintiffs’ lawyer said in court documents that before arresting the boy’s neighbor, police briefly detained another man who had also followed the neighbor. That man pointed to the boy’s neighbor and told the officers that he was the shooter, according to the plaintiffs.

After tackling the boy face down to the pavement, Dunn said the boy’s hands went near his waistband, making him concerned the boy had a weapon. Lopez also said in his deposition that he was concerned the boy was retrieving a weapon.

“We were in the middle of someone who was not following our commands,” Dunn said in his deposition. “We had just had four people get shot at. We had already taken a gun from the scene. This was a very, very serious call. This is about the most serious thing a police officer can deal with.”

The defendants’ lawyer says in court filings that the officers followed all relevant procedures, filing detailed reports of the incident. When the boy’s parents met with an internal affairs officer a few days after the incident, the officer disagreed with them that officers used excessive force, and he explained to them the department’s procedure regarding citizen complaints. The parents did not submit a complaint form, according to court documents.

The plaintiffs, however, raised questions about the police department’s handling of the case. In court filings, they said that the boy’s mother, Pagan, was assured that the matter would be investigated — and that it wasn’t — and that she was not informed about what other steps could be taken. The lawsuit also takes issue with then-chief of police James Neiswanger’s “baroque” process of reviewing civilian complaints, alleging that before complaints were investigated an administrator reviewed them to determine if they had “merit.” 

“Neiswanger was blindly unaware of how the HPD tracked use of force … and admitted being unaware of the 1911 injured prisoner statute that required tracking of injured prisoner reports,” the lawsuit states. “Neiswanger admitted he did not receive or review these reports.”

The lawsuit also questioned the former police chief’s approach to discipline. In a deposition taken on Feb. 23, 2018, Neiswanger said he had not disciplined any officers for excessive force and that he did not report to the mayor regarding how many civilian complaints he processed. Neiswanger was chief of police in Holyoke from 2011 until he retired in August 2018.

The City Council’s Finance Committee is expected to discuss the settlement in executive session at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.  

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