Holyoke police review panel struggles with lack of resources

  • Simbrit Paskins leads protesters in Holyoke from City Hall to the police station in a protest and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality June 2. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2021 8:10:31 PM

HOLYOKE — After protests against police violence and racism across the country last summer, Mayor Alex Morse announced in June that the city would be creating a Civilian Review Committee to suggest changes to the Police Department.

Yet nine months later, the committee — which took the form of an advisory board to the mayor — is in limbo with no formal suggestions for reform.

“It’s sort of on pause until we figure out next steps,” Morse said. “I think we quickly learned it needs more structure and organization and resources behind it.”

The mayor said he believes the city should invest in resources to hire someone to facilitate the process and organize the group.

Advisory board members who spoke to the Gazette agreed that a lack of resources was an issue.

“There was no clear charge other than you’re going to be working on policing and racial justice in Holyoke,” said member Vanessa Martínez. “That is wonderful in theory. In practice, the reality is that everyone had really strong desires to make some sort of impact fairly quickly, and what this work entails is a deep dive of learning and creating a structure before you can even impact any sort of change. It was too much of an ask for the resources that we had.”

“Which were zero,” added Erin Callahan, another member of the advisory board, in a group interview with several members.

Martínez said staff support would be helpful as well as facilitators or co-facilitators who are paid to do some of the behind-the-scenes organizing that, in the end, a few members took on as the group shrank. Martínez was referring to herself, Callahan, and member Elizabeth Caretti Ramírez.

Ramírez agreed, saying the group spent a lot of time talking about its structure and organization.

“We’ve had to figure that all out from the ground up,” she said.

‘Asking tough questions’

In announcing the formation of the group in June, Morse said it would provide feedback and policy recommendations to him, 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 early June about forming the committee and updating the Police Department’s use-of-force policies. “Do they line up with our practices?”

He said the group started meeting in late summer with about a dozen members, “a few” of whom have left the group since.

“Over time, the committee shrank and shrank because of all the sort of issues we talked about — support, time, effort, energy, resources,” Martínez said. “People had to step down. It was too much for a variety of reasons.”

The group shrank to Callahan, Martínez, and Ramírez, the three members said, and it wasn’t representative of the community anymore, according to Callahan.

“Even though the three of us are really different, it didn’t feel complete without different perspectives.” She added, “Then, obviously, the mayor is leaving. So we don’t know where it goes now. We’re hoping somewhere with more authority.”

When asked for a list of members, Morse connected the Gazette via email with Callahan and Martínez but did not provide a list. Martínez said that Morse opened the group’s first meeting.

“And then we were told that we had complete autonomy and flexibility,” Martínez said. Callahan added, “And then we didn’t see him again until this year.”

‘Inside information’

Morse told the Gazette he did not attend every meeting but checked in with the group. The group was put on pause in January, Martínez said.

“We came up with a lot of great ideas,” Callahan said, “but we realized to take it to the next level we would need resources and probably some sort of authority that would allow us to compel data (and) information … There’s so much we can do with public reporting, but we would need inside information to make inside change.”

Martínez said she believes redistributing resources away from police and into other places and people that have better expertise for certain situations is the way to go, “and I will say that to anybody that wants to listen.”

Before it was paused, Morse said the group was looking at use-of-force policies, reviewing the department’s handbook, and “having overall conversations about budget and finances of the department.”

The group’s meeting agendas are not publicly posted and its meetings were not open to the public. Morse said that, because it’s not an official city commission, the advisory board is not subject to Open Meeting Law or any of those requirements.

“Essentially it’s an advisory group as an arm of the mayor’s office,” he said.

“I think one of its challenges, frankly, has been it’s not an official city commission created by ordinance,” Morse said. “It was created by executive order. It’s essentially an advisory board to the mayor without teeth.”

Morse is set to leave office for the job of town manager in Provincetown at the end of the month. He said he is advising councilors to file an order to create an official city board or commission as it relates to police accountability so it can “outlast any one mayoral administration,” he wrote in a follow up email.

Earlier this week, four city councilors called for an independent assessment of the Holyoke Police Department through an order after a video of a police officer alleging widespread corruption and racism within the department went viral. The order proposes that “in an effort to obtain neutral, fact-based data and statistics, the City contract an independent assessment of Holyoke Police Department’s structure, policies, and practices.” At its meeting on Tuesday, the City Council sent that order to the Committee on Public Safety for further discussion.

Asked if she had considered a citizen review group, At-Large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, the councilor who filed the order, referenced Morse’s advisory group.

“However, from what I understand, there wasn’t a clear charge of organizational structure, and I don’t believe it was funded and so it never made much progress. If this order turns into something like that, that could be fine. It’s not my intent right now,” she said.

Callahan, Martínez, and Ramírez want to see the work of police reform continue in the future.

“I think we need to survey and interview police officers and the community and/or at least do sort of listening tours with both,” Martínez said.

Said Callahan: “I think we hope to make sure all the candidates who run for mayor next are aware of us and the work that we’ve done and hopefully we can get them to commit to continuing.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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