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Holyoke mayor: Low rate of officer discipline doesn't mean police ignore civilian complaints

City Hall at right in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on High Street.
Dusty Christensen
City Hall at right in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on High Street.

The mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, has broken his silence about an NEPM investigation that revealed the city’s police department almost never disciplines officers whom civilians accuse of wrongdoing.

In response to a public records request, the Holyoke Police Department turned over the 69 investigations into civilian complaints that the department conducted from 2010 through 2019. Out of the 92 times an officer was named in one of those complaints, police officials only “sustained,” or upheld, allegations against an officer three times.

When presented with NEPM’s findings, Mayor Joshua Garcia — who took office in 2021 — refused an interview with NEPM.

But on Monday, Garcia broke his silence on the WHMP radio show "Talk the Talk" after hosts Buzz Eisenberg and Bill Newman grilled him on the investigation’s results.

Garcia said the revelations don’t mean the department ignores complaints.

“When any complaint gets dismissed, it’s because oftentimes the result is inconclusive,” he said. “It’s hard to react and discipline to something that’s not producing any factual information or evidence.”

Garcia pushed back on allegations contained in NEPM’s report that the Holyoke Police Department has at times resisted taking civilian complaints.

“Without dismissing or trying to justify public concern, certainly there are things that I’m very much looking forward to improving at the police department so that we’re making sure we’re de-escalating these concerns from happening as much as possible,” Garcia said.

It took the Holyoke Police Department 18 months to turn over all of its civilian complaints and investigations of them.

Garcia said the police department wasn’t withholding information, but has faced “internal challenges,” including staff shortages, that made identifying and producing a decade of records difficult.

When asked whether Holyoke is considering outfitting its police with body cameras, Garcia said it is “certainly on the table” and that conversations about them have taken place between the city and police leadership.

“There are certainly those tools available that we’re all exploring, that we’re talking about,” he said.

In August, Holyoke hired a firm to audit its police department, including its internal investigation processes. Garcia said he will present that report to a City Council subcommittee on March 6.

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.

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