UMass officers accused of excessive force in restraining student cleared

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-28-2023 3:19 PM

AMHERST — Two University of Massachusetts police officers who arrested a student on Commonwealth Avenue near the Mullins Center last November, an action that came under scrutiny by the campus administration for potential use of excessive force and possibly being racially biased after four complaints were filed, have been exonerated through an independent investigation, according to the union representing patrol officers.

UMass Officer David Ortiz, the president of the New England Police Benevolent Association Local 190, issued a statement that there was no wrongdoing by UMass Officers Spencer Hotz and Jeffrey Skinner, the two men involved in the Nov. 1 incident in which a 21-year-old man was arrested on charges of assault and battery on a police officer and disorderly conduct.

Antael K. Rosa had been warned to stay out of the road near where a new sidewalk was being built and, after not heeding police orders, refused to get out of the road, prompting an officer to physically remove the student, according to police. Rosa is still facing charges in the incident.

Ortiz said the officers were informed Feb. 17 that they had been exonerated following a 3½-month investigation costing “untold amounts of public funds.”

“It should be noted that several of the complainants were not present at the time that the incident occurred and that the subject that had been arrested never filed a complaint alleging wrongdoing by officers Hotz and Skinner,” Ortiz said.

A day after the incident, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sent a campuswide email informing the community that steps would be taken to look into the matter after students and faculty who witnessed the incident voiced concerns.

“We will do everything within our power to ensure that the student involved is treated justly and that (the UMass Police Department’s) investigatory process is thorough and unbiased,” Subbaswamy wrote.

Subbaswamy’s letter acknowledged the important role that UMass police play in providing public safety to the campus, and that “an episode such as the one described by witnesses yesterday requires inquiry and reflection so we can continue the work toward establishing a community of dignity and respect for all.”

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The following week, Subbaswwamy announced that the private firm Margolis Healy and Associates would be contracted to conduct the investigation.

“The decision by UMPD Chief Tyrone Parham to retain the firm, which Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Brandi Hephner LaBanc and I fully support, was made to ensure that the investigation is comprehensive, independent and unbiased,” Subbaswamy wrote.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski confirmed that the internal investigation performed by Margolis Healy found no evidence that the officers acted inconsistently with state or department policy. The probe also found that no excessive force was used, or that the officers’ actions were motivated by bias.

“Because the full report is a confidential personnel document, Margolis Healy is in the process of producing an executive summary that will be shared with the campus,” Blaguszewski said. “Along with the executive summary, the university plans to share actionable next steps to build on its commitment to a bias-free environment.”

Blaguszewski added that four formal complaints were filed against the UMass officers involved in the arrest.

“Under department policy, all formal complaints are fully investigated,” he said.

Ortiz noted that based on allegations the arrest involved excessive use of force and bias, the complaint was reported to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission as required by that agency.

The chancellor’s public statements calling into question the actions of UMass police officers have “irreparably damaged” the reputations of these two officers with the nearly 40,000-member community, Ortiz said.

Oritz has called on Subbaswamy to issue a follow-up statement to the community that the investigation had been concluded and that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the officers

In the statement of facts filed in Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, Hotz defended his actions, writing that he kept in mind that three pedestrians had been hit by motor vehicles that year, including one in which a student was killed. He had been on patrol at 9:51 a.m. at Commonwealth Avenue and Campus Center Way when he gave orders to the student not to cross and to stay out of the road. Instead, the student entered the road and then refused to move out of Commonwealth Avenue once in the middle of the street, Hotz attested.

The initial physical contact was then made by the officer.

“At this time, I saw a large vehicle approaching (at this point there was heavily traffic and we were both still in the road). I placed a hand on (him), to guide him out of the road,” Hotz wrote. “(He) then shoved me.”

That shoving continued, though both made it out of the road, and then once at the police cruiser, the student refused a command to turn around, and was then placed into custody with assistance of Skinner, Hotz reported.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>