Holyoke officer who alleged corruption, OT abuse is fired

  • Holyoke police officer parks in the train station on Main Street on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Holyoke police officer Rafael Roca. In this still from a video Roca posted to YouTube on March 7, 2021, Roca alleges there is corruption and racism in the Holyoke Police Department. SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2021 9:42:49 PM

HOLYOKE — Last week, the city’s acting mayor fired a police officer who earlier this year posted a viral video on social media alleging corruption and racism within the Holyoke Police Department.

In March, Rafael Roca, who had been a Holyoke police officer since 2015, posted the video to YouTube, where it has since been viewed more than 56,000 times. In it, he alleged that superior officers falsify overtime pay, have protected each other from punishment for misconduct and have fostered a culture of favoritism and racism when it comes to promotion.

Roca was immediately placed on administrative leave as the department conducted an internal investigation. The report, which Roca shared with the Gazette, was completed on July 2. The investigating officers found that Roca had violated four department policies: failing to comply with an order to take his video down, unbecoming conduct, criticism of the department and social media rules.

Based on the report, Police Chief David Pratt suspended Roca for five days and recommended that the city’s mayor terminate him. On Nov. 10, then acting mayor Terence Murphy followed that recommendation after a city lawyer determined there was just cause for firing Roca.

Roca said he has already appealed that decision to the state’s Civil Service Commission.

Roca said Monday that he wasn’t surprised to have been fired, though he said he was disappointed that no city, state or federal authorities fully investigated his allegations. He noted that he was terminated in the final days of Murphy’s tenure as acting mayor. Joshua Garcia was sworn in as Holyoke’s 45th mayor on Monday.

“I already knew they were going to wait until the last minute,” he said. “Murphy didn’t have to answer to anybody. He’d be gone by then.”

In a statement, Pratt said he knows that “both the FBI and Attorney General looked into Mr. Roca’s allegations and found zero evidence to open an investigation.

“Mr. Roca has NEVER provided any credible information or documentation to substantiate his claims to the HPD, his union, the FBI, Attorney General or any other investigators that I am aware of,” Pratt wrote, adding that Roca was given due process.

Pratt said that Roca can still present his case to the Civil Service Commission.

“For this reason, the Holyoke Police department will have no further comment regarding Mr. Roca or his Case.”

Roca said he did speak to both the attorney general’s office and FBI at the same time, but that there was no subsequent follow-up from them. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on Tuesday.

Murphy said in a phone interview Monday that he felt no pressure from anyone to terminate Roca before he left office. Murphy said that neither the district attorney’s office nor the attorney general’s office ever spoke to him about any investigation of Roca’s allegations.

“I don’t think the mayor’s office is the right place to do a criminal investigation of the police,” Murphy said when asked whether the city had investigated Roca’s claims.

‘Public concern’

At issue in Roca’s case was whether he disobeyed a legal order from a superior, brought the Holyoke Police Department into disrepute with his statements, violated policy by posting to social media without permission from the police chief, and made public criticism that was defamatory.

Roca had argued that the city’s social media policy illegally infringed on his First Amendment rights, and that his statements were true and therefore were not defamatory. He also made the case that his statements were on matters of public concern; a Holyoke Police Department rule bars criticism of the department “except on matters of public concern.”

Roca also said that other officers have not been fired after breaking the law — driving drunk, for example — losing firearms and other misconduct.

“(They) never investigated any of my allegations to see if I was lying,” he said. “Where’s my due process in that?”

In a legal opinion sent to Murphy, which Roca provided to the Gazette, Assistant City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan said that Roca’s public statements were not protected by the First Amendment, and therefore the police chief’s order for him to remove the video was lawful.

She wrote that she believed Roca’s public statements to be “untruthful” and “self-serving,” and that he made them with the intent “to defame the Holyoke Police Department.”

“In my view, the violation of Rule 3 of the Holyoke Police Department rules alone is just cause for the five-day suspension and termination because police officers must follow lawful orders,” Degnan wrote.

Roca also took issue with the fact that a Nov. 5 hearing on his case took place at City Hall without him. He said he was in the hospital due to stress from the situation.

Degnan said in her report that she offered him the ability to participate via telephone and that she did not receive a physician’s note with sufficient detail to verify that he could not participate in the hearing.

Needed resolution

Murphy said that Roca had been on paid leave for eight months, and that the city needed to resolve that matter. He said that ultimately there was sufficient cause to terminate Roca.

“There were obviously violations of police procedures,” Murphy said. “Obviously, you have to have some kind of command in the police department ... If you’re in the police department, you have to obey orders.”

Because Roca has filed an appeal, the state Civil Service Commission will now determine whether his discipline will stand. Roca said he also plans to file a lawsuit over his treatment.

Roca said he has received support from former co-workers who are scared to speak out and from many others in the city. He said he is disappointed with how city officials reacted to his allegations.

“Not a single person from City Hall or city government reached out at all,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for them to be on my side, but you’d think if somebody was making allegations about their city they may have questions themselves.”

Following Roca’s allegations, the Gazette obtained and analyzed Holyoke Police Department records tracking overtime pay and hours. The analysis found that 15 officers were paid more than 500 hours of overtime in fiscal year 2020, including four of the department’s five highest-paid officers, who earned hourly overtime rates ranging from $94 to $109 an hour. Three of those officers claimed more than 800 overtime hours that year, and another claimed more than 1,200 hours.

During the mayoral campaign, Garcia’s opponent, At-large City Councilor Michael Sullivan, responded to the Gazette’s reporting by calling for an audit of the police department’s “handling of state and federal grant programs,” calling the use of overtime “excessive.” Garcia responded to say that he, too, would support an audit.

In an interview last week, Garcia said he planned to follow through with an “assessment” of the police department, later adding: “This is not an investigation, it’s an assessment.”

As for Roca, he said he doesn’t regret posting the video or making the allegations.

“I’m very confident that something is going to come of it,” he said. “Whether it’s now or later, we’ll see.”

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

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