Holyoke revisits use of force policies

  • Holyoke Police Chief Manny Febo joins protesters in a march, protest and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality on Tuesday, June 2, as they walk from City Hall to Holyoke Heritage State Park. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

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    Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse joins protesters in a march, protest, and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, as they walk from City Hall to Holyoke Heritage State Park. Here, they chant "hands up, don't shoot." GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2020 5:53:32 PM

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex Morse has announced updates to the Holyoke Police Department’s use of force policies and the creation of a civilian committee to suggest further changes to department practices.

The announcement comes as a response to protests against police violence and racism across the country. The updated policies stem from Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, which the advocacy group says are eight policies that can substantially decrease police violence.

Morse also said he would form a civilian review committee to provide feedback and policy recommendations to himself, Police Chief Manuel “Manny” Febo, and the City Council.

“I think it’s important that we don’t just use words, but use actions in terms of looking inward as a community and asking tough questions in terms of the policies we have,” Morse said in a phone interview Friday. “Do they line up with our practices?”

The eight policies are: banning chokeholds and strangleholds; requiring de-escalation; exhausting all alternatives before shooting; warning somebody before shooting; prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles; comprehensive use-of-force reporting; requiring a “use of force continuum,” which dictates how much force can be used in particular situations; and a duty for officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.

The “8 Can’t Wait” guidelines have been praised by some as a list of policies that cities can adopt immediately that could reduce police violence. Others, however, have noted that departments that have adopted the group’s recommended policies still have problems with police violence.

The Holyoke Police Department already follows seven of the eight policies, the exception being the requirement for officers to intervene when they see others using excessive force. Morse said codifying and clarifying the policies is just a start, and that the work does not end with the issuance of a press release or new rules for police officers.

“This is going to be an ongoing conversation, and this is lifelong work,” Morse said.

Holyoke has had its own problems with police brutality in the past. Just earlier this year, the city settled for $65,000 in a civil rights lawsuit that accused Holyoke police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014.

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit raised questions about the Police Department’s handling of the case. In court filings, the boy’s mother said police assured her 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 took 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.”

The lawsuits stated that the former chief was unaware of how the Holyoke Police Department tracked the use of force and “admitted being unaware” of a statute that required tracking of injured prisoner reports, and that he did not receive or review such reports.

Morse said an administrator at the department still reviews those complaints, but that there could be a better way to handle them and that the civilian commission should review the process.

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.

“There has been some improvements,” Morse said when asked whether Neiswanger’s comments in that deposition were still accurate. More said that if discipline exceeds a certain threshold, it comes to his office with recommendations from the police chief. He added that that hasn’t happened since Febo took over in 2018.

“Chief Febo and I are in touch on a regular basis when it comes to disciplinary actions,” the mayor said.

As for the Civilian Review Committee, Morse said that he will fill the body with a diverse range of city residents — likely between seven and nine people — who email a statement of interest to mayorsoffice@holyoke.org. Morse said some of their recommendations could likely be accomplished by executive order or by Febo — though others, like the creation of a civilian complaint review board, would need City Council approval.

When asked whether he would be open to a civilian complaint review board, Morse said that he supports the idea but that the City Council has historically opposed creating such a commission.

A central demand for many protesters across the country has been to lessen the role of police and to decrease their budgets, with some calling for the abolition of police.

When asked if he would be open to defunding Holyoke’s police, Morse said he feels the city has done a good job of repurposing its officers to deal with community issues, such as the opioid epidemic. He said some officers work full-time at a drop-in center on Race Street for those struggling with addiction. Other officers accompany a clinician from the community health care organization Tapestry on follow-up visits when an overdose occurs at an area hospital, connecting those people with resources they might need.

“Our officers are trained — and our philosophy is — that we want to prevent arrests and prevent incarceration,” Morse said.

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

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