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Captain Robert Powers, Who Went Viral After Hamburger Comments, Was The Defendant In A Civil Rights Lawsuit And Was Then Promoted

Powers allegedly encouraged police academy students to racially profile “ethnically altered vehicles all day long.”

By Will Meyer

Northampton Police Captain Robert Powers went viral over the past week after shouting “one bad hamburger at McDonald’s does not make McDonald’s bad” into a megaphone to a crowd of protestors. The comment has garnered national attention as it was featured on comedian John Oliver’s comedy program Last Week Tonight. Oliver said on his show, “Because one hamburger should mean a health inspection, a few bad hamburgers might mean that McDonald’s getting shut down, and bad hamburgers regularly killing people on the street would mean that we would maybe all consider going fucking vegan.”

Powers did apologize for his Hamburger comments, telling The Gazette that “I would like to comment by saying that I deeply apologize if my poor choice of words did not properly convey what I believe. Police brutality is never to be tolerated and is not tolerated at NPD.”

To better understand what Powers believes, it is worth revisiting a 2014 hazing lawsuit filed against him when he was a candidate to become the Belchertown Police Chief, after the previous chief was repeatedly caught driving under the influence. The suit became a news item in 2016, gaining coverage in MassLive, The Gazette, and other publications.

At the time of the incident Powers was a Northampton Sergeant who worked part time at the police academy in Springfield. The suit alleges that Powers in his capacity as a police academy instructor bullied the plaintiff, a student, and taught recruits to racially profile “ethnic” drivers.

The lawsuit alleges that Powers “went on to advise the student officers that Massachusetts police officers could issue citations to ‘ethnically altered vehicles all day long.’” It suggests that he admitted to this commentary and alleges “Powers regularly used the term ‘ethnics’ interchangeably with ‘Hispanics’”.

The suit was brought by a student officer named Timothy Turley, who claims he failed the academy due to retaliatory “hazing,” where Powers reportedly asked the plaintiff to “perform the degrading task of kneeling down and placing socks on the bare feet of another student officer.”

Furthermore, the suit alleged that, “In a module on motor vehicles law, Instructor Sgt. Powers clearly expressed his pleasure that Mr. Turley’s class was not ‘ethnically diverse’ because the entire class was made up of apparently ‘white’ recruits.”

The lawsuit also describes a graphic sexual assault Turley witnessed by firearms instructor Sean Shattuck — who was fired from the police academy as a result of the lawsuit — who said “what happens on the range, stays on the range” and “you guys can all . . . bitch and moan about how we have talked to you and treated you, but we already have our badges.”

By the time the lawsuit was publicized, when Powers was applying to become the Belchertown Police Chief, he had been promoted to Lieutenant at the Northampton Police Department and became the department’s “training coordinator,” according to MassLive in 2016.

It is unclear if Powers played a role in booking the “drug recognition trainings” at Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Jail in Arizona, which NPD officers participated in 2014 and 2015. Sheriff Arpaio was found guilty by a federal judge for racial profiling, which is exactly the type of police work the lawsuit suggests Powers actively encouraged. In 2018, the Police Chief Jody Kasper planned a trip to train with the Israeli Defense Force in Israel through a program that is notorious for its use of racial profiling. On police trips sponsored by the ADL, trainees learn that “profiling is not a dirty word.” The training trip was cancelled due to activist pressure.

According to Chief Jody Kasper, Powers is no longer the NPD’s training coordinator. He has now been promoted to Captain, where he oversees the department’s hiring and promotions.

In Wednesday’s City Council Meeting, Robert Eastman of Ward 3 brought up the lawsuit against Powers and reminded that he is also in charge of handling citizen complaints against police in his role as Operations Division Commander.

“Does this sound like someone fit to oversee the citizen complaint process put forth by the police department? Or someone who should be in charge of the hiring and promotion of police officers? Does this sound like someone who can uphold the department’s commitment to providing law enforcement services that are fair, effective, and impartially applied? In the case I’m not being clear, the answer is no,” Eastman said during his public comment, in which he advocated for a civilian oversight review board with legal power.

“The NPD’s [former] training and [current] hiring officer celebrates the absence of ‘ethnics’ among new recruits and actively trains officers all over the state in how to engage in racial profiling without getting caught,” Attorney Dana Goldblatt told The Shoestring. “And the NPD won’t admit that any of this is happening. That might be part of the reason why allocating money for training and diversity recruitment isn’t helping.”

Asked if Powers was held accountable by the Northampton Police Department for the behavior described in Turley’s suit, both Mayor David Narkewicz and Police Chief Jody Kasper didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment before press time.

At-Large Councilor Bill Dwight, who liaises with the NPD on hiring decisions, told The Shoestring in a phone call Tuesday that he was unaware of the lawsuit against Powers and didn’t know if the city had taken steps to hold him accountable. Dwight said that Councilors often are not privy to NPD internal affairs.

Powers will be receiving another raise this year as part of the new police budget. He is among a handful of police officers, such as Alan Borowski and Andrew Kohl, who have both been accused of misconduct and gotten awarded through promotions and higher compensation. (Once again, Powers is in charge of promotions and complaints against officers.) Borowski, whose base salary was $87,294 in FY19 took home $160,744.57 in gross pay that year, which includes overtime and off-duty detail pay. Borowski was accused of fixing his hours in 2018. But the internal investigation—into his hours and several other disciplinary infractions—never concluded because his union sued the city. His second suspension was reversed and he was issued back pay.

Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring.

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