Area police chiefs respond to state reform bill 

  • Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. in his office at the Police Station. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • James Sullivan, police chief in Orange, speaks during his interview for the position in 2019. Staff File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2021 6:02:06 PM
Modified: 1/6/2021 6:01:55 PM

Outrage swept through the country in 2020 over the high-profile deaths of Americans including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, all unarmed Black people killed by police. These incidents sparked what some are calling a racial reckoning in the United States, with widespread demands for police reform and the dismantling of systemic racism.

The federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 8, passed the Democratic-controlled chamber and will now advance to the Senate, now also controlled by Democrats following the dual run-off election in Georgia.

Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Legislature took it upon itself to pass a similar bill that Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law Dec. 31.

The law creates a civilian-led Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission with the power to certify officers, investigate claims of misconduct and revoke the certification of officers for certain violations. It also forbids the use of chokeholds, bars officers from shooting into a fleeing vehicle unless doing so is necessary to prevent imminent harm, and limits the use of so-called no-knock warrants. The new law also requires officers to intervene when witnessing a colleague using excessive force.

Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. said he supports the overall spirit of the law, though he believes some finer points will have to be carefully hammered out.

“I think there’s parts of it that needed to happen and there are other parts that I’m concerned with,” he said, adding that some of the legal requirements might place a financial burden on smaller cities and towns like his.

The chief said he likes the idea of a database that can be used to track police misconduct and weed out “bad apples.” He said it is not uncommon for an unqualified officer to get fired from one department and hired by another.

“I don’t want somebody else’s problem, just as I’m sure nobody wants my problems,” Haigh said.

He said he understands the desire and relevance of a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, but hopes its members are not privy to “every little thing” about police officers’ personnel files because a great deal can be handled internally.

The ban on chokeholds likely stems from the death of Eric Garner, a Black man choked to death by a New York City police officer in 2014 during his arrest on suspicion of selling untaxed single cigarettes. The limit on no-knock warrants is a response to the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old woman shot six times and killed by Louisville Police in the middle of night in March after her boyfriend reportedly fired on officers in self-defense, having not heard the officers’ alleged announcement of their presence and believing they were intruders.

The new law’s requirement for officers to intervene during unnecessary force by fellow officers is possibly in response to the police killing of 46-year-old Floyd on May 25. Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was recorded pressing his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes to pin him to the street, while three other officers looked on and prevented passersby from intervening. Floyd can be seen in the video losing consciousness under Chauvin’s knee.

Haigh said a commission could have decertified Chauvin, who he said never should have become a police officer, before he got a chance to take Floyd’s life.

“I don’t think you’re going to have a police chief opposed to that part of the bill,” Haigh said.

Montague Police Chief Christopher Williams said he approves of the new law.

“Everybody needs to be held accountable,” he said. “Most cops aren’t opposed to it, being held accountable. Nobody wants dirty, rotten apples in their department.”

Williams added, however, that he wishes there had been more time for police chiefs to advise legislators on the bill. He said there “was a lot of police input, but it wasn’t listened to.”

Gov. Baker proposed some amendments to the bill. These included removing a proposed ban on police using facial recognition software to solve crimes, with Baker saying the technology helped convict a child rapist and an accomplice to a double murder not long ago. The law signed on Dec. 31 sets statewide regulations on authorities’ use of facial recognition technology and requires state officials to make public details about how often the technology is used.

“Some police officers will be happy with the finished product, some won’t, and it’s going to take a while to get there,” Williams said. “Overall, I support what the governor is trying to do.”

Similarly, Orange Police Chief James Sullivan said only time will tell how well this new law works, but he understands the need and desire for it.

“I’m not arrogant enough to think we don’t need to evolve,” he said. “I’m not opposed to change. I’m not opposed to evolving. I’m not opposed to getting better at what I do.”

Sullivan said, however, while he does not want to protect bad cops, he worries that good police officers’ right to due process will erode under a civilian-led oversight ommission.

“I’m confident law enforcement is going to be able to adapt,” he said. “I know that we’re going to.”

Leyden Police Chief Dan Galvis said some reform is needed but the required added training will be burdensome to his officers, who are part-time and will have to travel to the Boston area. He said the law is a “knee-jerk reaction to … the whole George Floyd thing.”

Galvis said the death was unfortunate, but he watched all the officers’ body camera footage and noticed a white spot on Floyd’s tongue. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office autopsy showed Floyd had fentanyl in his system when he died. Galvis said drug use can make it more difficult to breathe.

“If all these people that got killed by police had just done what they had been ordered to do, they’d all be home with their families right now,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Galvis said, however, that Taylor’s death was “a total screw-up” and Taylor’s boyfriend likely didn’t hear the officers announce themselves.

“If somebody kicks in my door, they’re going to be met with lead,” Galvis said.

He also reiterated an earlier point that many police officers should not be on the job. He said many were bullied in their youth and feel the need for revenge when they get the badge.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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