Unidentifiable officers at Easthampton police reform meeting jar advocates

  • State Rep. Daniel Carey, from left, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti kneel at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex, Thursday, June 4, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2020 3:27:56 PM
Modified: 7/17/2020 3:27:42 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A large number of initially unidentifiable police officers and their supporters alarmed activists at a Community Relations Committee meeting held over Zoom Monday where police reform was on the agenda.

“This was a very, very strange and very disturbing moment in Easthampton,” said Jason Montgomery, a member of the community organization 01027: A Knee Is Not Enough.

Montgomery, who is of Chicano and indigenous Californian descent, said his objection to the police presence stemmed from a number of police officers not being identifiable by name. He also said that he wouldn’t have objected if the police had come as private citizens, or if a pro-police group had shown up to the meeting.

Montgomery said his group counted as many as 15 attendees at the meeting at one time who had EPD on their Zoom profiles and could not be identified, and that these individuals didn’t have their cameras on. Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti was present at the meeting and identifiable by name, Montgomery said, and didn’t have EPD on his profile.

Montgomery said police showing up in numbers and unidentified appeared to be a deliberate action.

“Why were they there in such a coordinated and direct fashion?” Montgomery said.

But Andrew Beaulieu, an Easthampton police detective and president of IBPO Local 367, the union that represents the police in the city, said officers at the meeting weren’t there as part of an organized action, although what A Knee Is Not Enough is advocating directly affects them.

“Why wouldn’t we be involved?” he said.

The advocacy group’s demands regarding the police range from not hiring officers with complaints against them and extending background checks on prospective officers to reallocating 10% of the city’s police budget to create a local 211 system. It has also released demands related to education in the city.

A Knee Is Not Enough was formed in response to the protest organized in June by Alberti and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle against racism and the killing of George Floyd, which resulted in hundreds of people around the city kneeling for 8½ minutes.

Last week, the mayor, police department and school department responded jointly in writing to the organization’s demands, but members dismissed it as “just for show,” as member Nataly Gomez put it.

“The conversation really is beginning,” LaChapelle said.

But Gomez, who gave a presentation on A Knee Is Not Enough and its demands before the Community Relations Committee on Monday, called the response an attempt “to appease the press” and silence the group.

“It didn’t seem like they actually want to be progressive in a policy change,” she said.

For her part, LaChapelle said the group had put together “really thoughtful questions” that the city had responded to. Some of the responses noted actions taken because of the group’s advocacy, such as putting a complaint form on the city’s website. Other responses pointed to existing laws and policies.

“Our response to their demands was educating them to a degree,” Alberti said.

For example, regarding the group’s demand that the city decriminalize homelessness and put a moratorium on arrests for survival activities, specifically asking for money, the response pointed out that homelessness is not a crime in Massachusetts and that panhandling is a constitutionally protected activity.

Other answers, however, were more equivocal, such as the response to demands that disciplinary complaints against officers go before a community review board. The response noted that the police department uses progressive discipline unless an offense is particularly egregious and calls for harsher measures and that disciplinary actions are governed by labor and case law.

Beaulieu, the police union president, said a number of the group’s demands reflect an unawareness of current policies.

Regarding the demand that the department not hire officers with complaints against them and conduct background checks, Beaulieu said, “We have one of the toughest background processes around.”

He also said officers are first hired in Easthampton on a part-time basis. “We determine if they’re going to be a good fit for this department or not,” he said.

The official response also said the city’s personnel department and the department are committed to not hiring officers with previous complaints against them.

During the public speaking period of Monday’s CRC meeting, Montgomery asked why so many police were in attendance. CRC Chairwoman Jane Hamel noted that it was a public meeting, which was reinforced by LaChapelle.

“They’re members of the public and many of them are residents,” she said.

Myra Oyedemi, another member of A Knee Is Not Enough, complained at the meeting that officers couldn’t be identified by name.

“Can I identify you by EPD letter letter letter?” she said. “I don’t feel that this is a safe space.”

She also asked if the officers were there in an official capacity.

Later in the meeting, LaChapelle said that people in the meeting should identify themselves with names on their accounts because it’s a public meeting, which resulted in a number of officers then identifying themselves by name in their profiles. LaChapelle said she learned later, however, that although people are required to identify themselves when speaking at a public meeting, they don’t have to do so while simply attending.

“I think it was important that we saw those names changing over,” said the mayor. “But I was wrong.”

She also acknowledged that the feeling of intimidation at the meeting was palpable and real.

“I just didn’t feel safe,” Gomez said, speaking to the Gazette. “People of color did not feel safe being there yesterday.”

Beaulieu said officers have been told to identify themselves with EPD during public meetings conducted over Zoom. Officers identified themselves in different ways on the call, he said, and he used EPD and his last name. He also said that he identifies himself with EPD in his username when he sits in on City Council meetings as well.

Additionally, he said officers didn’t have their video on because they’ve been instructed not to turn on video or audio in Zoom public meetings unless they are speaking. He said that these protocols were asked of the police and fire departments by the City Council at several different meetings, and he noted that at the last council meeting several firefighters were logged on with EFD in their profiles.

“None of this was some sort of organized conspiracy,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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