NEW BEDFORD — A long-awaited report released Thursday found that while the city’s police department is generally in good standing with current policing practices, there remain issues with reduced staffing amid increased calls for service; the experience of female officers in a largely male department; and a perception held by officers that city administrators do not respect them.
The 52-page report is the culmination of a nearly $120,000 study that started in late 2021 by the consulting firm Jensen Hughes. It involved a review of internal data and interviews with officers, leadership and community members.
The report highlights the department’s strengths and weaknesses, and issues a series of recommendations regarding transparency, policy and recruitment, among other areas. Mayor Jon Mitchell characterized the review as a proactive measure on the part of the city to ensure it’s up to best and modern practices.
Police Chief Paul Oliveira said it ultimately reflects that the department is in a “good place.”
“For me as the chief, it was a great opportunity to tell me how I can do better … for the city … for my men and women on the department,” said Chief Oliveira, who described the report as a blueprint for future initiatives and changes.
Amid “impressive” improvements, the report listed five “key issues of concern,” one of which is declining staffing levels. NBPD is budgeted for 260 officers, and is currently operating with around 210 as of June. The report noted officers leave for nearby departments that don’t have a residency requirement, or offer more pay with a lighter workload.
The residency requirement was recently adjusted in the contract reached last month with the union — reduced from 10 years to four; the contract also now allows for a residency waiver if staffing circumstances require it, and includes a pay increase.
Another issue highlighted relates to the experience of female officers, which number 14 (or about 6.5% of the department) as of June, according to an NBPD spokesperson.
“There is a perception by some female officers that they are not treated fairly nor respected by other officers,” the report states. “These female officers feel harassed in some circumstances and powerless to do anything about it.”
On harassment, a report section describes the need to supplement the department’s existing policy and training. As context, women cite gender and sexual harassment as the top two reasons for ending their careers in law enforcement, the report states.
The Light this summer reported women who work with NBPD said they left their positions on specialized units or avoided shifts after feeling uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior by a male sergeant. The sergeant received a written reprimand and was instructed to undergo the already required online training.
The report states the department’s existing harassment policy “aligns with best practices,” but that amendments should be made to “enhance its ability” to prevent, detect and respond to complaints about sexual harassment.
It recommends the department post the anti-harassment policy prominently throughout its buildings, including public areas; add a supplemental section on specific steps supervisors should take if they observe or receive a report about sexual harassment; and have the police chief endorse it, perhaps through a video statement shared at the beginning of trainings.
Asked what he thought of the recommendations on harassment, Chief Oliveira said they will take a closer look and review the policy to ensure it is up to current standards.
Regarding other forms of officer misconduct, the report recommends the department develop a “disciplinary matrix,” such that penalties for departmental violations are consistent.
It also recommends the department establish a standard time frame to resolve internal investigations, and undertake a monthly review of pending complaints.
An existing policy for NBPD does establish a time frame that internal investigations be completed within 90 days, with the possibility of extending it with written approval from the chief or his designee.
According to NBPD data that includes complaints dating back several years, some internal investigations have lasted from months to more than a year before being closed.
Regarding the consistency of discipline, The Light last month requested any NBPD policies that establish standard or recommended discipline by violation type. The city said it was not in possession of any responsive records.
“There is a sense in the department that when officers are found to have committed an offense, the discipline provided depends on whom the officer knows in the department, particularly the command staff,” the report stated, adding it’s a common sentiment in police departments. “Developing a disciplinary matrix can establish penalties for categories of offenses that must be followed … the use of such a written matrix helps ensure disciplinary actions are fair and consistent for everyone.”
Mitchell and the report’s author, Robert Wasserman, said Chief Oliveira adopted a series of initiatives and recommendations while the report was underway, such as increasing pay and paving the way for a body camera program, which is now possible through the new contract.
The next steps include adopting a policy and purchasing the camera equipment. Chief Oliveira said he has plans to meet with Axon, a camera vendor, next week, and that he anticipates the program may be running in early 2024.
“We’re still in talks with the city, obviously city officers, to deal with the cost. But, it seems like at this point, the priority is to put a body camera on every police officer,” Chief Oliveira said.
Body camera programs can be expensive, especially due to the necessary storage of large amounts of video footage. NBPD recently applied for the latest round of state funding for a body camera program, recipients of which have yet to be selected or announced.
“The chief has done an incredible number of things since we’ve been working with him, but we also have laid out things that have to be done over the coming year or two that will really strengthen some aspects of the department that will be very helpful,” Wasserman said.
One recommendation Wasserman highlighted during the press conference at police headquarters is to retire the outdated headquarters building, and ultimately reduce the number of police stations in the city to two.
“It’s gonna take a long time for us to consolidate the stations. New police headquarters for a city of our size are not cheap … it’s a big undertaking,” Mitchell said. “But it’s got to be done.”
The other recommendation is to restructure what Wasserman characterized as an outdated practice of having police supervisors and managers (captains, lieutenants and sergeants) be members of the same police union as the officers they oversee.
“That is becoming increasingly rare across the country,” Wasserman said. “Normally the officers who are supervisors and first-level managers are in a separate union because they are responsible for discipline of officers and such. And that is a change eventually that we strongly recommend ought to be done here.”
Also in regards to organization, Wasserman recommended the existing two patrol precincts be divided into more sectors. Under that new structure, officers would consistently be assigned to a particular neighborhood, such that they can establish rapport and build more trust with community members.
Other initiatives shared in the report include the plan to introduce an officer who will be a liaison to the LGBTQ+ community (the department recently introduced liaisons for the Muslim and Central American communities in New Bedford), and the addition of a recruitment officer to help address the staffing shortage.
On transparency, Jensen Hughes recommended the department post online its policies (for example, on use of force and harassment) and data on officer misconduct and complaints.
Wasserman cited the Obama administration’s 2015 report on 21st century policing and said he applied many of its recommendations to the New Bedford review.
Lt. Evan Bielski, police union president, previously said officers have been anticipating the report’s release.
“We’d like to see what it entails and what recommendations it might have for us in the future that could possibly benefit us,” he told The Light earlier this summer. He received a copy of the report Thursday, and said he needed time to read it before commenting.
“We have just gone through … a period of turmoil in the policing profession in the United States. There’s been a real reassessment in the wake of the pandemic, the George Floyd incident of course, and a number of other incidents that have caused much of American society to rethink the role of policing,” Mitchell said in explaining the reasoning behind the report.
“This is a very useful tool … because for us it validates a lot of things that we suspected were going on, both good and in areas in need of improvement,” he continued. “And it also raised a number of other issues that we hadn’t thought about that we want to attack.”
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.