Holyoke police call on councilor to apologize for ‘gang’ comments

  • Holyoke Police Officer Manuel Rivera, center left, and Capt. Matthew Moriarty, center right, speak during a press conference in front of the DiNapoli Plaza Police Memorial statue on Appleton Street, Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

  • Capt. Matthew Moriarty stands in front of the DiNapoli Plaza Police Memorial statue on Appleton Street in Holyoke during a press conference Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2022 8:33:51 PM
Modified: 9/13/2022 8:29:57 PM

HOLYOKE — The city’s police officers and supervisors unions on Tuesday called for At-Large City Councilor Jose Maldonado Velez to publicly apologize for referring to the department as a “gang” or recuse himself from any vote involving the city’s police.

In a press conference in front of the DiNapoli Plaza Police Memorial statue on Appleton Street, members of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local #388 and Local #409 said they work hard to tackle some of the toughest challenges that residents face and the councilor’s statement was offensive.

“Although these comments are disheartening, I can tell you that every single member of this department is focused on making the city a better place,” Officer Manuel Rivera said, flanked by about two dozen other police department personnel of varying ranks. “Look around. You can see that we are a direct reflection of the community we serve. We will continue to work tirelessly to improve the quality of life and protect every citizen of this city.”

Maldonado Velez compared Holyoke police to a “gang” during a Sept. 1 public meeting. The council was debating acceptance of a federal grant to fund a ShotSpotter gunshot recognition program and Maldonado Velez argued that it would lead to increased policing in communities of color; the matter was tabled for a future vote.

“The police is a gang. It literally is. They’re there to protect each other, to look out for each other, and to come out with force in our community,” Maldonado Velez said. “The police, for me, was used as a reminder to stay in my place. I’m a Latino. You’re supposed to act a certain way, talk a certain way. That’s what police was for. It was not there to help me.”

In a press conference outside City Hall last week, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni called the statement “irresponsible” and “inconsistent” with the reality of the department’s work. In recent weeks, Gulluni, several police officials and Mayor Joshua Garcia have promoted ShotSpotter as an effective law enforcement tool that does not lead to overpolicing.

On Tuesday, Capt. Matthew Moriarty, the supervisors union president, cited a City Council rule that he said bans councilors from disparaging members of the public, and said Maldonado Velez had “violated this rule.”

Maldonado Velez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Moriarty said officers are thick-skinned and accustomed to criticism when it comes from the general public, but the fact that an elected official made “insulting” comments in a public meeting is different. He said the department is struggling with a lack of manpower and there is a “tight budget” for both ammunition and training, adding to the difficulty of the work.

“We’re supposed to be allies working together, and to use such a derogatory word of being a ‘gang?’” Moriarty said in an interview. “The gangs in Holyoke are the No. 1 problem, whether it’s firearms, murders, narcotics, human trafficking. To be even slightly associated with that term, it’s harmful.”

Moriarty said the department employs “numerous officers” who were born and raised in areas of the city with gang activity “and they could have easily, if they wanted to, become gang members.” Those officers, he said, are likely the most offended.

It remains possible, Moriarty said, that Maldonado Velez misspoke or otherwise did not mean what he said, but nearly two weeks had elapsed without that kind of clarification.

“Hey, people make mistakes,” he said. “But if you continue with the narrative, then it’s not a mistake and this is what you think of us, and you should have nothing to do with votes that pertain to us and that affect us.”

Rivera said the broader public “strongly” supports the police department and that he has seen “great strides” toward community policing strategies over the last 20 years.

“For every negative comment I hear, I hear five positive comments,” Rivera said.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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