The Black Lives Matter mural on Union Street in downtown New Bedford was created by a team of designers and artists working together to render and install the 4-foot-tall letters. Credit: New Bedford Creative

NEW BEDFORD — Fundamental police reform appears to be as elusive as ever more than a year after Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets to demand substantive change and accountability in New Bedford’s police department.

The city’s police department has implemented modest reforms pertaining to its use-of-force policies, but city officials have balked on deeper systemic changes such as stripping qualified immunity from police and establishing a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct.

“We didn’t really make any major changes in anything,” said Buddy Andrade, a member of the commission that Mayor Jon Mitchell appointed to recommend revisions to the police department’s use-of-force policies. Andrade described the commission’s final report as containing “good, boilerplate recommendations.”

“The community dialogue was more important than any of those recommendations,” Andrade told The New Bedford Light.

The commission’s recommendations were standard operating procedures that city police officers “should have already legally been doing,” said Jacob Chin, 35, a city resident and attorney who has been involved in anti-racism activism in New Bedford.

“They picked really low-hanging fruit type things, so they could say they made all these changes, but they really haven’t made any changes at all. These weren’t any actual systemic changes to racial profiling or police brutality. They’re so basic that they don’t really mean anything,” said Chin, who also sits on the New Bedford NAACP’s executive committee.

“There are a host of challenges we need to discuss,” Dr. LaSella L. Hall, president of the New Bedford NAACP branch, told The Light in a recent interview.

“I’m talking about body cameras, qualified immunity, civil service review, school resource officers,” Hall said. “There’s a larger context that we have to look at, not just around use of force.”

The push for police reform in New Bedford came into sharper focus after the death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May of 2020. Video of the incident sparked demonstrations across America, including in New Bedford, where Black Lives Matter protests brought back memories of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia, who was killed by police in 2012. The local NAACP is still calling for an outside investigation of the Gracia killing.

Artists Tanisha Ferrer, Duvall Skerritt, Ashley Stuart and Styles Vazquez stand in front of the mural they helped create on Union Street between Purchase and Pleasant Streets. The public art project was installed Feb. 6, 2021. Credit: Marvens Paul

Mayor: Police have made substantive reforms

Mitchell’s administration and the police department’s supporters in City Hall have pushed back on criticisms from some in the community that the city needs to do a better job in reforming law enforcement and holding police officers accountable.

“I think we had a good process to address the use-of-force policies,” Mitchell said. “Those were discussions that fleshed out a lot of information. Those changes are not just words on a page, but they were and are being activated.”

The New Bedford Police Department implemented three revised use-of-force policies this year. Two of them — for deadly force and less-lethal force — took effect on July 13. The police department implemented the third — a revised policy for the use of Tasers or electronic control weapons — on Jan. 27. 

“We want to make sure all our officers know that we want de-escalation at all levels, to be used at all times when possible.”

Paul Oliveira, New Bedford Police Chief

Based on recommendations from the 22-member commission that Mitchell appointed, the revised use-of-force policies include new language that officials say gives clearer guidance on de-escalation and emphasizes the duty of police officers to intervene when witnessing abuse and violation of the use-of-force policies, and to report such incidents. 

The amended, less-lethal force policy, for example, now includes language pertaining to “strangle holds, and other neck controlling techniques,” an addition that the commission recommended would be clearer and more precise than only referring to “choke holds.”

In addition, New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira said the city’s police officers are now being trained on implicit bias, mental illness, and developmental problems when dealing with the public, which the commission also recommended.

“We want to make sure all our officers know that we want de-escalation at all levels, to be used at all times when possible,” said Oliveira, who told The Light in a phone interview that he and other commission members believed the pre-existing policies were “well-intended” and “sufficient.”

In a press release announcing the updated use-of-force policies and “enhanced communications training,” the city announced that all of the commission’s 23 policy recommendations had “been implemented to policy,” and that officers were being trained on those changes.

“If people bring things to our attention that we think need to be revised or need to be updated, that we’re not being progressive enough, then we’ll continue to do that for as long as I’m here,” said Oliveira, who is also open to the use of body cameras.

Police this month say they are implementing a new gang policy to ensure greater transparency, accountability and maintenance of records, according to Chief Oliveira. The policy, to be announced Oct. 19, includes an updated point system with a higher threshold for determining gang affiliation and establishes a notification system to inform individuals if they have been identified as gang-affiliated.

COMING THURSDAY: The New Bedford Light examines NBPD’s new gang policy, with insight from experts in law and advocacy.

Police have also advertised for a consultant to provide law enforcement advice in developing a “strategic direction for the Department.” Among the tasks described is to “Develop a strategy to increase transparency of all policing actions and initiatives aimed at reducing crime, violence and disorder.”

Police chief says body cams need study

The mayor’s commission recommended a pilot program be created for officers to test body cameras while on duty, and that all funding be leveraged “to ensure a body camera program is implemented and sustained.”

Oliveira said he would assemble a committee to study the feasibility of such a program.

“There’s the update costs, the software, the storage, the public information requests,” he said. “It’s a program that if we’re going to do it, we gotta have our research done. We gotta have policies in place. It’s not something you shoot from the hip and make happen.”

Only 10 percent of Massachusetts’ roughly 350 municipal police departments operate a body-worn camera program, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which on July 1 announced a new grant program for local police departments interested in implementing new or expanding already existing body camera systems.

Police body cameras have support across the ideological divide. A recent poll by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association indicates that more than 75 percent of police departments in the state are interested in implementing body cameras. Mitchell said he’s “all for” equipping officers with body cameras. The New Bedford NAACP has also endorsed police body cameras.

City resists review boards, ending qualified immunity

 When asked for his thoughts on proposed reforms like ending qualified immunity for police officers or enacting civilian review boards with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, Oliveira deferred to state and federal legislators.

“Even with body cameras, the state Legislature has the power… We know the feds have the power to legislate and put a camera on every cop, and they’ve failed to do that to this point,” said Oliveira, who added that those kinds of structural reforms “are bigger than New Bedford.”

Other city officials voiced ambivalence or skepticism when pressed for their views on those proposed reforms. 

Mitchell referred to civilian review boards and ending qualified immunity as “window dressing.” He suggested the real “linchpin issue” is Massachusetts’ arbitration system, which he argued “undermines” police chiefs “all the time” by reversing their disciplinary decisions.

The mayor also characterized ending qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that protects public officials, including police officers, from being personally sued in most civil lawsuits — as “a paper tiger” that would result in cities paying higher insurance premiums.

Mayor Jon Mitchell referred to civilian review boards and ending qualified immunity as “window dressing.”

“It’s not a fundamental change,” Mitchell told The Light in an interview at New Bedford City Hall. 

Chin accused the mayor of “talking in circles” and looking to “pass the buck” on police accountability.

“The reality is that we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, when something bad happens, police can be held accountable,” Chin said. “We know that, so I don’t understand why he thinks it’s impossible to hold police accountable for a legal thing. That’s just not true.”

When asked if the state’s arbitration system makes it difficult for him to discipline officers, Oliveira said he “would never blame the responsibility of my office on an outside agency.

“It’s the right of the officers to be able to appeal their discipline to an arbitrator. I don’t always agree with an arbitrator’s decision,” Oliveira said. “But to say I should be the be-all and end-all of punishment, I’m not gonna say I’m perfect at it. I’m not in that position either.”

Councilor-at-Large Brian K. Gomes, a supporter of the police department who chaired the mayor’s commission that reviewed the department’s use-of-force policies, told The Light that “some of the proposed reforms out there” like ending qualified immunity and creating a civilian review board would put the New Bedford Police Department and the city’s residents at a “disadvantage.”

“Law and order is how we will keep this city together,” said Gomes, who also pushed back against the argument that Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes in May 2020, symbolized systemic racism in law enforcement. Floyd’s murder sparked protests across the country.

“At what point do we hold police officers accountable?”

Dr. LaSella L. Hall, New Bedford NAACP branch president

“What happened with George Floyd shocked this nation, shocked this world,” Gomes said. “At the same time, I’m not going to hold every police officer accountable for one officer’s actions. One officer’s actions sent everything into disarray. It doesn’t mean every cop hunts down Black men.”

Those comments, Hall said, speak to how the dominant culture in the United States thinks of law enforcement.

“It’s not just germane to New Bedford,” he said. “As a whole we have a serious police accountability problem. The reality is we know the police do things which benefit the dominant culture.”

Said Hall, “At what point do we hold police officers accountable?”

Volunteers prepare mural panels at a studio in Kilburn Mill in New Bedford. Credit: New Bedford Creative

Andrea M. Moore, president of Collectives for Change, a local multiracial grassroots organization formed during last year’s protests, told The Light that how city officials have thus responded to the calls for systemic change reveals “a lack of acknowledgement and ownership of the way that policing has contributed to breaking down communities.

“My view on the commission is that it was something done just to keep the community quiet,” said Moore, who criticized the commission for having a defensive environment when people in the community raised their issues and concerns.

“I didn’t really trust it, and I think it needed more community involvement,” Moore said.

Councilor Gomes: Police review panel did its job

Gomes pushed back against criticisms from the New Bedford NAACP and local anti-racism activists that the use-of-force commission he chaired was too narrow in scope and not inclusive enough of the community.

“They (community members) wanted to discuss other matters that I didn’t think were relevant to what we were doing or what we were asked to,” Gomes said. “I wasn’t there to get into any other policies or any other actions. Our charge was to focus on these policies, and to make them work for the city, and for the people of the police department.”

Almost from the beginning, some community residents criticized Gomes’ handling of the commission. Even some of the commission’s members expressed those same misgivings.

“The commission did what it was supposed to do, which was to window-dress and do nothing substantive,” said Noah Williams, 22, a local anti-racism activist and college student who sat on the commission. Williams said the commission’s recommendations were “obviously not enough” to implement real police accountability.

“I don’t see any substantial changes,” Williams said, “because we have yet to question our most basic assumptions about policing and how police operate, and about what public safety actually is.”

“If the goal was to do nothing, then that’s exactly what you did — nothing,” said Andrade, who told The Light that other commission members shut down his attempts to ask about the police department’s reforms that were supposed to have been implemented after Morris Pina Jr., was found dead in a police holding cell in June 1990.

“People there said, ‘We don’t want to go back that far. That’s not what this is about,’” Andrade said. “After that, nothing happened right.”

“If the goal was to do nothing, then that’s exactly what you did — nothing.”

Buddy Andrade, member of the commission to recommend revisions to the police department’s use of force policies

Gomes stands by the commission’s work, as does the mayor.

“I’ve heard those complaints, and I respectfully disagree,” Mitchell said. “To my mind, the committee worked in good faith to ensure it got as much input as it got.”

The mayor defended the city’s police department as a “very professional” force that he credited for keeping violent crime down and that historically has had “constructive relationships with every community” in New Bedford.

“But like every other component of city government, we understand and the police department knows it has to improve and change with the times,” Mitchell said.

Asked how he thought policing had changed since last year’s Black Lives Matter movement, Oliveira told The Light that a lot of the goodwill and trust that had been built between local communities and police departments in previous years “crumbled apart.”

Chief: ‘Let’s start building public trust again’

“I think, moving forward, all we can do now is say, let’s be at the forefront at this, let’s start building public trust again, let’s make sure we’re transparent and make sure our training is progressive,” Oliveira said.

Hall said outstanding issues remain before trust can be restored between the community and the New Bedford Police Department, which was the subject of a critical report last year by a Boston nonprofit that alleged the department’s own data showed its officers policed young people of color at disproportionately high rates. 

In addition to its demands for greater accountability and police reform, Hall noted that the NAACP is still calling for an outside investigation of the May 17, 2012, shooting of Malcolm Gracia, a 15-year-old of Cape Verdean descent who was shot to death near Temple Landing by several city police officers.

In May 2019, a Superior Court judge ruled that New Bedford Police unlawfully stopped Gracia since the officers did not have probable cause to believe that he and the teenagers he greeted at Temple Landing were armed and dangerous. In January, former Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro rescinded a controversial “high energy patrol” directive that instructed officers to confront individuals in their sectors and use all legal means to deter criminal activity.

“There has to be an independent investigation where people are allowed to learn the truth of what happened, and we hope that that will happen,” Hall said.

Mitchell said the Gracia shooting “can be investigated by whomever,” and argued — against the assertions of local civil rights activists — that a civil case settled last year by Gracia’s family did not bring forward any new material evidence that would change conclusions previously reached by district attorney and attorney general that cleared the officers.

“To my mind,” Mitchell said, “there’s nothing new there.”

If that’s true, then Hall said the city should welcome the investigation. Hall added that he is willing to give Oliveira, who officially became the police chief in June, “time to get his feet under him.” As for his policy disagreements with Mitchell, Hall added that “none of this is personal.”

Said Hall, “We want to advance policies so that our communities are able to thrive and live well and have the same opportunities as any other community; to have opportunities for fair housing, for equal employment, equal pay, and schools to raise our children. That’s it.”

Police reform report card

New Bedford Police have implemented 23 specific recommendations made by a commission appointed to review the department’s use of force policy. However, the commission also listed eight points as “Related Recommendations, Observations and Concerns” on Dec. 9, 2020. Only three of those eight items have been adopted; some are under study or in progress.

Note: Neither school resource officers nor ending qualified immunity for police was listed among the eight recommendations.

State of recommendations, observations and concerns:

The Commission strongly endorses New Bedford’s adoption of body camera usage for Police Officers when on duty. The Commission recommends a pilot program be created for Officers to test body cameras and that all funding sources be leveraged to ensure a body camera program is implemented and sustained.

NO (UNDER STUDY)

That the NBPD not execute “no-knock warrants” without a judge’s approval.

YES (STATE LAW)

That the NBPD broadly publicize and promote the procedure for filing a complaint against the NBPD to residents of New Bedford, at schools and in marginal communities. 

YES

That the NBPD implement more training and guidance for police officers on how to engage (with) those experiencing mental illness, intellectual and physical disabilities.

IN PROGRESS

That NBPD police officers be trained annually on the use of force policies and be required annually to demonstrate proficiency in the comprehension and application of such policies.

YES

That NBPD police officers be trained annually on implicit bias, explicit bias, antiracism, and cultural competency, and that emotional Intelligence testing should be required for hiring.

IN PROGRESS

That an independent committee, including people who are not police officers, be created to review any cases related to use of force, and that documents from such cases be made public.

NO

That culturally responsive, comprehensive de-escalation training be provided to all officers.

IN PROGRESS
Brian Fraga

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