Internal affairs: Complaints against Northampton police by fellow officers usually resulted in discipline, but most by the public were dismissed

By DUSTY CHRISTENSEN and GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writers

Published: 12-18-2021 7:01 AM

NORTHAMPTON — When it comes to investigating its own, the Northampton Police Department rarely disciplines an officer who is named in a civilian complaint. When a superior officer or fellow Northampton officer files an internal complaint, however, most of those cases result in discipline.

Those are the findings of a Gazette review of 44 of the 135 internal affairs investigations the Northampton Police Department has conducted since 2010, as well as logs tracking those investigations. The records, obtained through a public records request, detail how the city’s police police themselves.

As communities nationwide scrutinize police operations and some, including the city’s own Policing Review Commission earlier this year, call for change, one of the areas now in the spotlight is how police departments conduct internal investigations. Late last year, after Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a new police reform bill that, among other measures, clarifies that “law enforcement misconduct investigation” documents are not “personnel records,” which are normally considered exempt from public disclosure under the state’s public records law.

Shortly after that change to public records law, the Gazette filed public records requests for a decade of internal investigation reports from some of the area’s largest departments: Northampton, Amherst, Easthampton and Holyoke. The Northampton Police Department is the only one that quickly provided those records free of charge and without major redactions. Other departments have attempted to charge hundreds of dollars in fees to obtain the records, heavily redacted them or stalled in providing them.

The complaints and investigative reports the Gazette obtained from the Northampton Police Department allege a range of police misbehavior. Officers, some of whom are no longer on the force, were accused of using excessive force, abusing their power, skipping work, making racist comments, arriving at work drunk, sleeping on the job, falsifying hours, leaking information to a right-wing blog, driving drunk off duty, and illegally installing emergency blue lights in a personal vehicle.

In a response to questions sent in May, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said the internal affairs records demonstrate “a long track record of effectively investigating our own personnel and holding people accountable for mistakes or intentional violations of policy.”

As for why civilian complaints are less likely to lead to discipline, Kasper said police officers know department policies, practices and the law well, so their reports contain more knowledge of the event and affiliated rules that an officer might have violated.

Nearly all of the complaints were filed either by civilians or by superior officers who had identified potential misconduct. Of the 90 times an officer was named in a civilian complaint from 2010 and 2020, only in 10% of those instances did an officer face any kind of discipline, compared with 79% who had charges sustained against them when a supervisor or another officer initiated an internal investigation.

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Though the Gazette obtained detailed records from 44 internal investigations, many of those investigations named multiple officers. The Police Department’s internal investigations logs detail the outcome of all 135 probes, including whether each officer named in the investigation faced discipline or not.

The department no longer has in its possession 88 of those investigative files; state law allows police departments to destroy them after a certain amount of time depending on the outcome of an investigation. The department is also withholding another three records from the Gazette.

Complaint outcomes

Of the 90 times a Northampton officer was one of the subjects in a civilian complaint since 2010, the department “exonerated” the officer 48 times, records show. The department found civilian complaints against an officer “not sustained” on 17 occasions and “unfounded” in another 12 instances. Three officers had cases dropped because the “complainant never followed up,” and another case is listed simply as “filed.” Only nine times were civilian complaints “sustained,” or upheld, with discipline for the officer in question.

In the 75 instances when a police officer named another member of the department in a complaint, an officer was disciplined or had charges sustained against them 59 times, including one case in which an officer was fired. An investigation led to “not sustained” findings for seven officers, one “unfounded” finding and two “exonerated” findings. Four more cases are listed as “filed” and one is listed as “policy changes implemented.” In another, the officer resigned.

Kasper said an allegation is “sustained” when there is sufficient evidence to substantiate it, “not sustained” when there is insufficient evidence, and “unfounded” if the allegation is “either false or not factual.” An officer is “exonerated” if an incident occurred but the officer acted “lawfully and properly,” she said. Cases listed as “filed” are kept on file and may be reopened if additional evidence is received.

Earlier this year, Officer Joshua Wallace, president of the union that represents Northampton’s patrol officers, said that “everything is investigated” by the department, and that his union supports that. In other cities and towns, he added, “not every citizen complaint will be investigated.”

The number of Northampton Police Department internal affairs investigations has significantly declined in recent years. Only two total cases were brought against officers in 2019 and 2020, compared with the 133 investigations opened over the previous nine years. Kasper did not give a reason that case numbers have dropped, saying only that the department has “not done anything differently.”

Incomplete records

Though 135 cases are documented in the Northampton Police Department’s internal affairs logs dating back to 2010, the department says the full reports for many of those cases no longer exist.

Police departments can legally destroy case files from a citizen or internal complaint after a certain period of time, according to the secretary of the state’s website. Civilian complaints that are substantiated, for example, can be destroyed seven years after an investigation is closed, while those that are deemed unsubstantiated must be kept for five years.

After the Gazette filed a public records request for all investigative reports dating back to 2010, Northampton police produced all of the files that it said it had — except for three. The department’s supervisor of records, Jane Lawnicki, said the department withheld one report under a state law that makes reports of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence confidential. The department withheld two others under the public record law’s privacy exemption.

“While I understand that this exemption does not apply to police officers, this department is withholding these records for the privacy of the officers’ families,” Lawnicki wrote in an email. The Gazette appealed the withholding of those records and received a favorable ruling from the state supervisor of records. The department said it now plans to redact the records before handing them over, quoting the Gazette a $435 fee for that work.

Among the files the Northampton Police Department did not provide the Gazette is a case filed in November 2015 against Officer Andrew Kohl, the outcome of which is listed as “sustained 60-day suspension.” The department’s description of the records mentions domestic violence. That same month, a district court judge approved a restraining order against Kohl for what the order said was “a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse.” Another abuse prevention order was approved in September 2016.

The Gazette contacted each officer named in this story, seeking comment on the details of the internal affairs reports that named them. In an email that he said he wrote on behalf of Northampton officers the Gazette contacted, Kohl said the Gazette was “attempting to regurgitate past stories” about the city’s officers “in order to worsen or add to the anti-police rhetoric.” He said police selflessly work long hours, missing holidays and other major life events to “face the evils of the world and serve the citizens of this community.”

“They protect the prey from the predators, the good from the bad,” Kohl wrote in the email. “To reintroduce the past, personal or professional, in order to further an agenda is disheartening and deplorable. Your article will only weaken a community and those who serve it.”

Another case the department withheld from the Gazette was a 2017 investigation of Robert Moriarty, whose Linkedin profile notes that he was on the force for 25 years and served as the patrol officers’ union president. That case’s outcome is listed as “sustained-retired.” Moriarty did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

An additional withheld case, against officer Brent Dzialo in 2015, is listed as “not sustained.” Dzialo did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The person identified most often in civilian complaints was Officer John Lopez, who between 2010 and 2012 was named in nine civilian complaints — none of which were sustained — in addition to three more internal complaints, two of which were sustained. City payroll records from fiscal year 2013 identify Lopez as a “separated employee.”

The department said that the underlying documents in Lopez’s cases no longer exist. Kasper said she was not in administration at the time and is unfamiliar with the details of the complaints. Kasper said she contacted Lopez and that he declined to comment for this article. Efforts to reach Lopez separately were unsuccessful.

Kohl received five civilian complaints during the period the Gazette reviewed — second most on the force. Only one of those complaints was partially sustained, for swearing at somebody who had made an offensive gesture at him.

Officers disciplined

In March 2015, Northampton Police Officer John McCarthy arrived at work smelling of alcohol, according to the department’s investigative report.

A fellow employee reported their concerns to supervisors, who picked McCarthy up from a traffic detail job. McCarthy took a breath test and blew a .095 — above the legal blood alcohol content of .08. In an interview with a supervisor, McCarthy explained that he drank more than usual the previous night.

“He woke up the next morning and drove himself to the station in his personal vehicle to check in for his detail at 0800,” the department’s investigation says. McCarthy was ultimately suspended for five days and given mandatory mental health counseling, which was his third time receiving discipline in five years. But the department did not bring criminal charges against McCarthy, despite a finding that he had broken the law.

Kasper said the department treats employees suspected of driving intoxicated the same as any community member. However, she said specific elements of the crime must be met, such as driving on a public way and impairment, noting that a preliminary breath test is not admissible in court.

“Some of the elements in this case would be challenging to prove, especially considering the time that had elapsed after he checked into the building earlier that morning,” Kasper said. “Although he did not move through the court process, he was disciplined by the department and more importantly, was directed to support services.”

McCarthy is still a Northampton police officer, according to the department’s website.

McCarthy’s case is one of several instances of drunken driving allegations. In two cases previously covered by the Gazette, officers crashed their cars into other vehicles while driving drunk off duty.

In one incident, Officer Andrew Carney ran a stop sign and hit another car in May 2015, according to the investigative report. Carney wasn’t charged with drunken driving, despite later that day taking a breath test that showed he had a blood-alcohol level “well above the legal limit,” the documents say. Carney joined the West Springfield Police Department in January 2020.

In a March 2018 case, Officer Michael Cronin ran a red light, hit another car and “fled the scene,” the internal records say. He later returned to the scene, was arrested for drunken driving and pleaded guilty to the charge. Lt. Robert Powers wrote in a summary of that case that the lessons Cronin learned would “make him a better public servant,” and that he would “serve with distinction” going forward. He is still a Northampton police officer, according to the department’s website.

In another case, Officer Scott Gregory faced an internal investigation in December 2017 after he drove 70 mph through a densely populated, 30 mph zone on Pine Street while responding to a report of breaking and entering. The investigative report states he ran through several stop signs and sped through multiple crosswalks, eventually reaching a speed of 98 mph on Locust Street, which has a speed limit of 40 mph. He ended up crashing into another car, which earned him a seven-day suspension — later reduced to five days — and remedial training.

In June 2013, Gregory ran the license plate of a car at the request of a construction foreman at an off-duty detail job he was working. The foreman had given Gregory a fake reason for wanting the information. According to the department’s investigation, the foreman overheard on Gregory’s radio who the car belonged to and then gave that information to a friend, who used it to harass and threaten his estranged wife and her male friend who owned the car and had parked it in her driveway.

“Since then, both of them have been living in fear of what could happen next,” the investigation says. “From threatening text messages ... to (redacted) swerving at (redacted) while driving the opposite way and forcing him off the road, the list goes on and on.”

Though Gregory’s superiors concluded in their investigation that he wasn’t negligent or careless in disseminating the information, he nevertheless did so with no legitimate law enforcement purpose. For the offense, he was issued a written reprimand.

In an email to the Gazette, Gregory, who is still a Northampton officer, declined to comment on those two internal investigations. He did, however, provide his official rebuttal to the 2013 incident. In it, he said he can’t fathom how many people overhear such information every day over police radios and scanners.

“It was not my intention nor perceived that a negative result would come out of the situation reported to me because of how it was reported to me by, at the time, a person who I considered a concerned and reliable citizen,” Gregory wrote. “I acted on good faith and investigated a suspicious vehicle as I would on patrol.”

Some of the Northampton Police Department’s investigations add new details to stories previously covered in the news. For example, in 2015, Kasper — then the operations division commander — began an investigation into Robert Powers, then a lieutenant, after a police recruit sued him and other academy staff. The recruit’s lawsuit alleged Powers made racist remarks when he was a staff instructor at the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy.

During the investigation, Powers admitted telling academy recruits that they were “good all day long” to stop “ethnically modified” cars but denied another allegation that he expressed pleasure that the academy class was all white.

Not reported at the time, however, was another comment Powers admitted making during Kasper’s investigation: telling fellow Northampton officers that one man was “the only Hispanic from Holyoke without a record.”

Ultimately, the department issued Powers a “verbal reprimand reduced to writing,” and made him attend “cultural awareness training.” He was eventually promoted to captain. Kasper did not offer an answer when asked why she promoted Powers after that incident. In June, Powers retired from the department after 26 years.

Efforts to reach Powers directly were unsuccessful. In an email, Kasper said she spoke to Powers to explain that the Gazette was preparing an article, and that Powers was uninterested in speaking with a reporter.

In another case the Gazette previously covered, five officers were investigated over the leak of police documents to the right-wing blog Turtleboy Sports. The blog published two internal police documents in its coverage of the Northampton Police Department’s cancellation of its High-Five Friday program at city elementary schools after members of the public complained about the initiative.

Capt. John Cartledge, who investigated the case, could not confirm whether any of five named officers sent documents to the blog. However, Officer Kirchner was given a written reprimand because his email inbox did appear on an image the blog published, according to the department’s internal affairs report. Kirchner said he had sent an image of the email to a group of current and former Northampton officers, the investigation says.

Police Commission

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and the City Council created a Policing Review Commission during the summer of 2020 to examine the Police Department and make recommendations on changes to policing and public safety. Among the commission’s findings in its March 2021 report were that the department’s current complaint process is “clearly inadequate,” stating that an internal investigation “should not be done by the Chief, nor should it be exclusively by co-workers of the officer against whom the complaint has been lodged.”

“All we wanted to say is it seemed like an internal process and it was sort of suspect,” Cynthia Suopis, co-chair of the Policing Review Commission, said this spring after the commission’s report was published. “It falls under a department investigating itself.”

Suopis noted that in recent years there have not been many complaints filed against Northampton police officers.

“That just sort of didn’t correlate with what we were hearing in all the public comments that we had,” she said. Some people who commented to the commission said they feared retribution from police or other authority figures, though commenters didn’t necessarily say that’s why they didn’t file a complaint, she said.

Nicole Hendricks, a criminal justice professor at Holyoke Community College who studies police-community relations, said allegations of misconduct are not often sustained in internal investigations, which by definition are systems closed to public scrutiny. A more open process focused on community members and their needs would increase fairness for officers and civilians alike, she said.

Hendricks said that external mechanisms of oversight do exist, such as civilian review, independent auditor and police ombudsperson models. She said that making current systems more transparent would be a positive step, but cautioned that bigger questions need to be asked about the role of police in society.

“Many policing scholars have been cautioning that a focus on ‘bad apples’ misses the mark, as it reinforces the notion that problems in policing can be rooted out with a focus on individuals, instead of a reshaping and realignment of a criminal legal system that is not currently fair or just,” Hendricks said.

School case

When civilians do make complaints in Northampton, the Police Department often finds them “exonerated,” “unsustained” or “unfounded.” But those case files nevertheless point to moments of tension and conflict between the department and those it is tasked with serving.

In one 2016 case, police received a complaint against Wallace, then the resource officer at Northampton High School, concerning several alleged encounters between Wallace and members of the Students of Color Alliance, or S.O.C.A. In one instance, a school staffer advised Wallace not to attend a S.O.C.A meeting about “police mistreatment,” but he attended anyway, the complaint alleges.

The report said that S.O.C.A members reported that Wallace said the entire Northampton Police Department thinks Black Lives Matter is “bullshit.” The complaint against Wallace alleged that he called Black Lives Matter a “criminal movement” that “encourages violence against the police,” and that Wallace asked students “to explain why the Confederate flag is considered racist.”

When asked about the alleged BLM comment, Wallace told the department, “I would not have told them that we/the police thought it was bullshit.” In an interview with the Gazette, he said he did not make the comment, and that the students asked him if he thought the flag was racist.

Wallace told the Gazette the group’s adviser said he could be at the meeting. He said that the group put up flyers around the school about a coming meeting.

“They were posting pictures of people who died in police custody,” Wallace said. He said he wanted to talk with the students, “to foster a positive relationship between the police and the students — all students.”

Lt. Craig Kirouac found the complaint “not sustained.” However, two students involved in S.O.C.A at the time told the Gazette they took issue with Wallace’s involvement with the group.

Zion Barbour and Syl Shread remember Wallace coming to their meeting. Shread said Wallace asked some “inappropriate questions,” though Barbour, who was then a leader of the group, said he thinks Wallace came to the S.O.C.A meeting with good intentions.

“I don’t really mind the idea of discussion,” he said. “I think it got out of hand.”

Their interactions were frustrating, Barbour recalled: “I do feel like we were trying our best to educate him and seriously that’s not our role — we’re a high school club. We didn’t want to educate the police.”

Wallace said he thought he could make the group feel better about the police and that he was doing the right thing engaging them in conversation.

After a cut to the Police Department’s budget last year, the position of school resource officer was eliminated, though Wallace is still working at the department. Later, the School Committee passed a nonbinding resolution to ban resource officers from city schools.

Excessive force allegations

The internal affairs records have several allegations of excessive force, including some the Gazette previously reported, such as the 2018 case of police arresting a 29-year-old man after the court mistakenly issued a warrant for him.

The man, whose name is redacted, filed a complaint against Officer Brendan Lagoy, saying that police hit him with a closed fist, tackled him and kneed him in the head. In an interview with investigators, the man said he should not have resisted arrest “but felt as though Officer Lagoy’s actions went too far.”

The investigation concluded Lagoy did not violate the department’s use of force policies and that the allegations were not sustained. There is “no credible evidence” of knee strikes, but there is “credible evidence” Lagoy struck the man when he was on the ground, the investigator wrote. The man could still have been “assaultive” while on the ground, and “the strikes were likely objectively reasonable,” the report adds.

In another 2018 case, a police officer got into a “physical altercation” with a woman who had a fire in her basement and wanted to go back into the house to get her dog.

Officer Honora Sullivan-Chin arrived first at the scene and told the woman not to go inside, according to the investigative report. The woman alleged that Sullivan-Chin shut her hand in the door, pushed her down and then arrested her after she tried to enter the house to get her dog. Sullivan-Chin, meanwhile, reported that the woman initially blocked her from entering the house with a fire extinguisher. Sullivan-Chin alleged that after grabbing the woman’s arm to keep her from going inside, the woman struck her with the door.

Police arrested the woman on charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and resisting arrest. The woman wrote in her report that the officer was escalating, rather than de-escalating, the situation. An attorney for the woman told the police that she would not meet with them unless they dropped the charges, the investigation said, and no interview with her is in the file. The department exonerated Sullivan-Chin.

“By all accounts of cooperating witnesses, all force utilized by Officer Sullivan-Chin was used in attempting to restrain (redacted) and remove her from the doorway to give firefighters access,” the report reads. It adds that “far greater force could have been utilized as (redacted) had reached the level of ‘assaultive, bodily harm,’ when she grabbed Officer Sullivan-Chin and used the door to strike her. Within policy, responses could have included pepper spray or baton/empty hand strikes.”

Two other cases in the files the Gazette obtained related to an ongoing dispute between Lt. Alan Borowski and other top brass in the department.

In 2017, Borowski was given two separate suspensions for a handful of complaints brought against him. Borowski and his union challenged those findings in arbitration, and eventually prevailed. In 2019, the city vacated Borowski’s two suspensions, withdrew the findings that accused him of violating department policy and issued him back pay.

In 2020, Borowski filed a lawsuit against Kasper and others in the department claiming the investigations were part of a smear campaign. The lawsuit was transferred from Hampshire Superior Court to U.S. District Court last year, and a judge recently struck down efforts by the defendants to dismiss the case.

Department of Community Care

After the Policing Review Commission issued its report earlier this year, Mayor Narkewicz included in his 2022 budget $423,955 to launch a Department of Community Care — an alternative emergency response system. Last month, Narkewicz announced that he had hired Sean Donovan, the transformation project coordinator at Holyoke’s Wildflower Alliance, as the new department’s implementation director.

When asked earlier this year about the section of the commission’s report about the Northampton Police Department’s internal investigation process, Narkewicz said police reform legislation the state Legislature passed last year will create a state commission that is responsible for investigating police misconduct.

In a follow-up conversation over text message on Sept. 3, Narkewicz declined to answer whether the city plans to follow through on the Policing Review Commission’s recommendations to make the Northampton Police Department’s internal affairs process more transparent.

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