NEW BEDFORD — Current and former New Bedford Police Union leaders have some of the largest complaint histories among the department’s nearly 240 officers, according to data provided by the New Bedford Police Department.

The department submitted this summary disciplinary and complaint data to a new state agency that will have the authority to certify or decertify Massachusetts police officers in response to misconduct. The data includes general details of the complaints, such as the date, allegations, disposition and any discipline that was  administered. 

The new union president Christopher Cotter, who joined the department in 2000, has 14 complaints, seven of which were sustained for violations including computer usage policy, insubordination and violation of social media policy. Three complaints are pending.

New union Vice President Graciano Pereira, who joined the department in 1994 and previously served as union president, has 21 complaints, three of which were sustained for violations including neglect of duty and insubordination.

Former union president Hank Turgeon, who started with the department in 1992 and resigned as president in December, has 14 complaints. Only one was sustained for neglect of duty, and two are pending for “conduct unbecoming of an officer” and violation of department rules and regulations.

Daniel Sweeney, the former chief shop steward who resigned from the union role shortly after Turgeon, has 17 complaints, only two of which were sustained for neglect of duty and for leaving a firearm unattended in a motor vehicle. He started with the department in 1994.

The four officers rank among the top 20 for number of complaints, which ranged from 11 to 26 for an officer. A majority of officers had one to five complaints.

This chart covers complaints filed from 1990 through 2021 for active-duty officers.

Cotter, Turgeon and Sweeney did not respond to The Light’s email request for comment on their complaint histories.

Pereira responded to a request for comment after this story was published and said he does not have two sustained complaints for excessive force, which NBPD confirmed.

“Sgt. Pereira does NOT have two sustained complaints for excessive force,” said the department’s public information officer Lt. Scott Carola, in response to The Light’s inquiry about the accuracy of the data provided on Pereira. “The program used to generate the data makes it appear that way, however this is not the case.”

The Light asked if any of the other charges listed as sustained for Pereira were incorrect. Carola was unable to provide an immediate answer, stating the head of the Division of Professional Standards, which oversees the complaints, was not in the office on Friday. 

Complaints are filed by citizens and police department personnel; citizens generally make up a majority of the complaints, but internally generated complaints are more often found as sustained or proven, a police accountability expert said. The complaint history can depend on the length of time an officer has served and how much he or she interacts with the public, according to the New Bedford police chief and the expert, who said complaints do not necessarily indicate performance issues.

Police Chief Paul Oliveira in an interview with The Light said it would not be uncommon for the most proactive police officers to have the most complaints because they are interacting with the public more. What is an issue, he said, is the number of sustained complaints. 

“If we have an officer that only has three complaints and they’re all sustained, that’s concerning,” Oliveira said, “and it depends what they’re sustained about. If you have an officer obviously showing a trend towards excessive violence, excessive force I should say, that’s a red flag right away. That’s very concerning.”

About 50 active officers had no complaints; most of them started serving in the 2010s and 2020s, but a few started in the 1990s and 2000s. Complaints were dated 1990 through 2021. 

All police departments across the state were required to submit this complaint and discipline data to the state’s new agency, the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, by Dec. 31, 2021. Future complaints filed locally will also be submitted to POST, which will have the authority to certify or decertify police officers in response to misconduct. 

Previously, Massachusetts had no system to certify or decertify officers across the state, WBUR reported.

The data includes complaints only for active officers and does not capture the full complaint history with officers who have retired, resigned or been terminated. The POST Commission said New Bedford police submitted most of its data on Dec. 14, 2021, and The Light received it in February. 
Oliveira said that with a lot of complaints, the department determines the issue comes down to training.

“We should have done a better job training the department or the profession,” he said, “and that’s one thing where POST has looked at, where there’s some training deficiencies they found and they’ve put more training on us, which I think every police officer in America welcomes.” 

Christopher Harris, an associate professor at the UMass Lowell School of Criminology and Justice Studies, said longer complaint histories can be a combination of both the officer’s “operational style” and the length of time he or she has served.

“You can look at some complaints as both kind of a performance metric to some degree, but also as a level of exposure for officers,” he said.

If there are many citizen complaints, they could be a measure of conduct, much like the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” saying, but they do not always indicate misconduct, he said. 

“To some degree, citizens complain when officers engage in things that are perfectly within policy,” he said. “There’s lots of reasons why citizens complain — some for valid reasons, some for not valid reasons … these are very imperfect measures of misconduct, so [people] really need to take them with a grain of salt.”

Asked if there is any perfect measure, Harris said there is not, but that departments should use more than one performance metric by looking at not only complaints, but also use of force, vehicle crashes, sick leave use and any civil litigation.

“The whole idea is the more metrics you have, the more you can triangulate true problems,” he said. 

The data did not indicate whether the complaint was generated internally or by a citizen, but NBPD spokesperson Holly Huntoon said it is about 50% citizen and 50% internal based on the “last couple years.”

Harris, who studies police accountability and citizen complaints, said research shows most complaints are generated by citizens, and that complaints are more often sustained when generated internally as the charge is easier to prove or the officer’s supervisor more likely has evidence.

Complaints against NBPD personnel are reviewed internally by officers in the Division of Professional Standards, or by the unit commander who supervises the accused officer, according to the department’s complaint review policy. The investigators’ findings then go to the deputy chief and chief for review and approval.

None of the complaints among active personnel resulted in an officer being placed on administrative leave, according to the data. 

Oliveira said administrative leave would be used if discipline is pending, if the investigation is ongoing or if the department feels it is a violation serious enough that the officer would be a threat to himself or to the community. The department has also used leave “on occasion” when a restraining order required an officer to forfeit his or her firearm, at which point they would not be able to perform the duties of a police officer.

Discipline included suspension ranging from one day to 30 days, counseling (defined as conversations with a supervisor, not behavioral counseling), a written reprimand, an oral reprimand, forfeiture of benefits, training and loss of vacation hours. Some sustained complaints resulted in no discipline, according to the NBPD data.

Harris said discipline can vary significantly between or within departments, and that he has heard from officers that the punishment can be inconsistent and seem unfair or arbitrary. It can also vary by the chief, who can “set the tone” on what is tolerated and what is not, or what is more serious and less serious. 

Of the 983 complaints against 185 New Bedford personnel, roughly 24% were sustained, 33% exonerated and 12% unfounded for either all or part of the allegations. 

Charges and infractions cited for the sustained complaints included improperly performing a duty, neglect of duty, excessive force, violation of social media policy, absence from duty without permission, withholding evidence, conflict of interest, releasing information to the media, civility, verbal abuse, insubordination, anti-discrimination policy, issuing false statements, use of force, commission of a criminal act, abusive conduct, excessive conversation while on duty and use of intoxicants. 

Harris said that generally, only one-quarter to one-third of complaints in police departments are sustained.

Disposition key:

SustainedSufficient evidence supports the complainant’s allegations
Not SustainedInvestigation failed to objectively prove or disprove the allegations
ExoneratedComplained of action did occur, but the action was reasonable, proper and legal
UnfoundedInvestigation reveals that complained of action did not occur
FiledThe matter is placed on file without any disposition 

Roughly 10.5% of the New Bedford cases were “filed,” meaning the matter was placed on file without any disposition, and 14.5% were not sustained, meaning the internal investigation could neither prove nor disprove the allegations. 

Excessive force is listed in 174 complaints (or nearly 18%); 11 were found sustained and three are listed as pending.

Just over 20 complaints are pending and were filed in 2012, 2018, 2020 and 2021 for allegations including neglect of duty, excessive force and violation of department rules and regulations. Oliveira said the department is currently conducting an audit of those complaints and that they may not actually be pending. 

A data review of much greater scope will begin at the state level as the POST Commission’s work gets underway. 

The commission was established as part of a police reform act on justice and accountability signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in December of 2020. POST is described as a “centralized and uniform system of holding all law enforcement officers in the Commonwealth accountable” through the investigation and adjudication of complaints against officers.

POST’s responsibility is to administer a mandatory certification process for police officers, as well as processes for decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand in response to misconduct.

Harris said Massachusetts was one of the last states to create a commission like this.

Oliveira said that while he is “comfortable” with how the department has handled complaint cases over the years, the commission will have the ability to reopen cases and come to different dispositions or disciplinary actions.

POST Commission Executive Director Enrique Zuniga said the re-opening or overturning of cases previously decided by police departments will be a “case-by-case” situation.

“It is at least conceivable that an individual who has been disciplined at different times for different incidents (and cleared or reinstated after each of those incidents) becomes the subject of review by our Division of Standards,” Zuniga said. “… we may decide to let a local investigation take its course, or we may decide to open our own inquiry before a local investigation is completed.”

He said the commission’s work will include “leveraging as well as supplementing the work that happens locally.” Staff are still aggregating and housing the disciplinary data, and will eventually make “certain data” public. 

Harris said having a pool of data from departments across the state could help establish a baseline to measure whether a local department has accountability or misconduct issues. A department could have a very low number of sustained complaints, for example, or a very high number of complaints compared to departments of similar size, which could indicate problems.

Additionally, publishing data on complaints, findings and dispositions can counter a public perception that departments are not holding their officers accountable, he said. 

“I think generally speaking, police should make as much data available to the public as possible to show what it is they’re doing,” Harris said. “Right now, they’re experiencing sort of a legitimacy crisis … so the more police can do to enhance the legitimacy, which would include producing information about their accountability mechanisms and letting the public know about it, I think that’s all for the benefit of both the police and the public … There’s this sort of old adage that ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ right?”

Editor’s note: This report was updated on March 4, 2022, to correct information about the number of sustained complaints against Police Sgt. Graciano Pereira, currently serving as union vice president.

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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