Is police brutality a local problem?

  • DONELAN

  • SULLIVAN

  • REDMOND

  • GALVIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/15/2020 5:16:53 PM

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last month sparked worldwide protests and a national conversation about police reform.

States and municipalities across the country are considering sweeping reform bills, and Congressional Democrats on June 8 put forward legislation — led by the Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — that aims to crack down on police brutality and document patterns of misuse of force.

But complaints of excessive force used by law enforcement appear to be rare in Franklin County, the most rural in a state often more progressive than others. Sheriff Christopher Donelan, who runs the jail and house of correction in Greenfield, said his facility serves as the training site for sheriff’s deputies and police officers when they are hired and when they are recertified every year.

“I think (Franklin County and Massachusetts as a whole) are far ahead of many other parts of the country as far as the training we get,” he said. “And I think that’s shown in the infrequency of the number of complaints for excessive use of force.”

Video footage filmed by a bystander has gone viral of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes to pin him to the street on May 25, while three other officers looked on and prevented onlookers from intervening. Police, who had been called on suspicion that Floyd had purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, claimed Floyd was resisting, but surveillance video footage does not support this assertion.

Floyd said he couldn’t breathe at least 16 times, called out for his dead mother, and at one point said he was going to die. Floyd can be seen in the video losing consciousness under Chauvin’s knee. He was later pronounced dead at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Donelan said he was horrified by the footage.

“The purpose is to gain control of a situation and get them in custody, and you don’t want to put their life at risk to achieve that,” he said. “To think that an officer would spend that amount of time in a position of restraint … It just doesn’t seem necessary.”

He said that Massachusetts’ Municipal Police Training Committee clearly outlines what measures police officers can take to gain control of a situation. He said certain body parts, such as the neck and head, are off limits.

Starting a national conversation on police tactics

Orange Police Chief James Sullivan said he does not know what Chauvin was thinking, and that a situation must be re-evaluated once an arrestee in under control.

“That’s what we have to do as police officers — de-escalate the situation, make (the arrestee) safe,” Sullivan said. “It appeared to me that (Floyd) was under control.”

He said complaints of police brutality in Franklin County are rare, and he credits this to a mixture of good training and officers who love their communities.

“They’re professional police officers,” he said. “We have a job to do and (officers) want to do that. They want to do it for the community and they want to do it for themselves.”

Sullivan said the states in the Northeastern corner of the nation diligently train officers the proper way.

He said he hopes there will be a silver lining in Floyd’s death, and public outcry will lead to change and increased training of law enforcement officials across the United States.

“Everybody’s voice is being heard loud and clear now,” he said.

Gill Police Chief Christopher Redmond said he thinks there needs to be a national conversation about police tactics, and Massachusetts can be a leading participant in it.

“I think we need a dialogue, or commissions to review and see what changes are necessary,” he said, going on to say that “knowledge is power.”

Redmond said he saw the footage of Floyd’s death and called it “disgusting,” “totally uncalled for” and “wrong.”

“I don’t know how many bad adjectives I could say about it,” he said.

Redmond stressed that officers must do their best to avoid situations where force is used.

A different perspective

Dan Galvis, the police chief in Leyden, said police brutality is not as big a problem in rural areas like Franklin County as it is in big cities.

Galvis took a slightly different position than his fellow law enforcement officers regarding the Floyd-Chauvin incident, saying he has read that Floyd had a history of violence and was combative inside the police cruiser before he was removed from it. He also mentioned how an autopsy report revealed Floyd had fentanyl in his system, which Galvis said can make it difficult to breathe. Still, he said, Floyd’s life should not have ended the way that it did.

“Did they do the right thing? No. Kneeling on his neck was not the right thing to do,” he said. “But the guilt can’t be 100 percent on the police officer. Some of it lies on (Floyd).”

Galvis also said Massachusetts has different standards on the use of force than many other states.

He said he hopes there is not an overreaction that changes everything about how cops do their jobs, and that a lot of the criticism of police comes down to mere second-guessing.

Galvis also mentioned situations like this could be avoided if there were more stringent restrictions on who could become police officers in the first place. He said some people are bullied their entire lives and then have a chip on their shoulder when they graduate from the police academy.

“Then they strap on that badge and they’re out for revenge. And that’s not a good combination,” Galvis said. “Some guys are just not cut out for this line of work.”

He said he has been a police chief roughly 22 years and tries to take a more genteel approach to law enforcement by having a sense of humor and being patient and informative with people he pulls over people for speeding and other more minor offenses, which has allowed his department to maintain good relationships with community members.

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


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