Holyoke police audit finds department poses ‘substantial risk’ to city

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2023 2:57 PM

HOLYOKE — A consultant’s audit of police practices in the city has found that the department “represents a substantial risk to the city,” and suggests that “drastic steps” are needed to alleviate some of these risks.

The 132-page report from Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI) of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, offers several recommendations, including accreditation, which MRI says would provide a “road map” to guide the department as it works “toward overcoming deficiencies and managing risk.”

The report sees aged policies that aren’t always followed, absence of governing and failure to adhere to best practices as contributing “physical, financial and reputational risk to the police department and the city.”

It cites “extraordinary” overtime as a problem that will likely require a substantial increase in operational and personnel costs to reverse.

In an executive summary for the City Council, Mayor Joshua Garcia also highlighted accreditation, which he stated could “ensure the adoption and cultivation of best practices, and address areas of concern.”

Garcia, who was not available for comment Wednesday, also noted that some suggestions, such as adequate staffing for patrols, are “far-reaching and consequential” and will require cooperation from all those involved to implement.

The report asserts that training is “lacking in a number of areas.” It also cites a shortage of patrol officers and says there is a need for 17 to 30 additional officer positions.

Police Chief David Pratt made reference to this in his summary of the report.

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“I’d ask for support and collaboration in reaching suitable staffing levels for the agency,” he wrote.

Pratt said the Police Department has been working on some of the areas outlined for improvement, such as implementing a field training program.

The idea of an independent assessment of the Police Department was first floated in March 2021, a week after a Officer Rafael Roca posted a video to social media alleging corruption and racism within the department. He was later fired for posting and declining to take down the video.

At the time, Pratt stated he knew that “both the FBI and Attorney General looked into Mr. Roca’s allegations and found zero evidence to open an investigation.”

In the wake of those allegations, several city councilors filed an order calling for an independent assessment of the department’s structure, policies and practices “in an effort to obtain neutral, fact-based data and statistics.”

City officials again called for an audit of the Police Department in October 2021, after the Gazette obtained the department’s internal spreadsheets tracking overtime hours. The newspaper’s analysis showed that several high-ranking officers accumulated hundreds of hours of overtime in fiscal 2020, at hourly overtime rates ranging from $94 to $109.

In its report, MRI confirmed the belief of the mayor and others that police overtime was excessive, but stated that it could not see “any realistic alternative” because of low staffing and police union agreements with the city.

One of the consultants’ key recommendations, in fact, is that the city renegotiate collective bargaining agreements, with an eye toward reducing its obligations in the area of paid leave time. Garcia noted that this suggestion, along with the recommendation that the city separate from the Massachusetts Civil Service, “may well raise eyebrows.”

MRI representatives will present the report to the City Council’s Public Safety Subcommittee on March 6.

Staff Writer James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com. ]]>