Easthampton officer’s deployment to Puerto Rico cut short

  • Chelsea police officer Anthony Ortiz carries his gear from the aircraft at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport, coming home from a deployment in Puerto Rico. GAZETTE STAFF/Caitlin Ashworth

  • Seven officers landed at the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport after a weeklong deployment in Puerto Rico. gazette staff/Caitlin Ashworth

  • State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, came out to the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport to support the officers. Caitlin Ashworth—

Monday, October 16, 2017

EASTHAMPTON — A week into a two-week deployment to Puerto Rico, seven police officers — including one from Easthampton — were sent home Friday from a humanitarian mission by the state’s emergency management agency.

Easthampton officer Luis Rivera and the six other officers returned home after spending a week on the island devastated by Hurricane Maria, which struck on Sept. 20.

Their deployment, initially set for two weeks with a team of 24 officers, was cut short due to what the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said was a “miscommunication.”

“It is our understanding that there was a miscommunication regarding specific parameters of humanitarian assignment that the officers were involved with, and as a result, the officers were rotated out of their assignment,” MEMA spokesperson Christopher Besse wrote in a statement.

MEMA organized a team of 69 law enforcement officers and arranged them to be deployed in three, two-week rotations. The next rotation is tentatively scheduled to deploy on Wednesday.

“MEMA continues to work to support Puerto Rico in their recovery process from the recent devastating hurricanes,” Besse wrote.

The officers who returned home Friday departed from Boston to San Juan on Oct. 7 to assist with security duties such as enforcing a curfew. The returning officers, which include two from Chelsea, one from Hampden and three from Holyoke, landed Friday evening at the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

News reporters were barred from the room where people gathered to welcome officers home, and officials were tight-lipped about why the officers were brought home early.

“I’d rather be down there,” said Chelsea police officer Anthony Ortiz, who was grabbing his gear from the aircraft.

He said there was a lot of devastation on the island and there’s work to be done.

Officers were able to reconnect with their families in Puerto Rico who were affected by the storm, Ortiz said. Rivera told the Gazette in a prior interview that if he had the chance he would go out to see his grandmother.

On Friday, he referred questions to Police Chief Robert Alberti, who said officers had been traveling for about 30 hours and needed to debrief before talking to the media.

Hampden Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth said the officers were doing everything from answering calls to directing traffic, but were also completing humanitarian work such as handing out food and water to people who needed it.

“These guys did what every one of would have wanted them to do. They were out in the community rendering aid,” he said. “And that’s the ultimate job of a police officer — to give aid in any shape that we can.”

Alberti said he’s proud of the officers.

“They are truly heroes,” he said, adding that the officers took time away from their families and jobs to go to a torn and devastated area.

“The call went out for help and our officers step up to meet that call,” Holyoke Police Chief James Neiswanger said. “We’re extremely proud of their actions.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, was at the airport to welcome home the officers. Gonzalez said he has family — his father, sisters, aunts and cousins — are in Puerto Rico. One of his extended relatives had a heart attack during the hurricane and died. Gonzalez said his family is lucky they are not ill because the hospitals are only taking patients that near death.

He said the storm did little damage to his family’s home, but everyday life hasn’t been the same. It takes about two to three hours just to get gas, Gonzalez said, and an hour or two to get ice.

“It’s putting a damper in their spirits,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said he’s trying to get his family off the island, but in the meantime he’s been working hard with the Western Mass United for Puerto Rico to provide aid. He said the group raised over $70,000 and loaded 10,000 pounds of supplies to send down to the island.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.