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See Something, Say Something #18

Media Criticism from The Shoestring.

By The Shoestring

Police stenography strikes again

The latest in local police stenography comes from MassLive, whose recent article “Gun arrests in Springfield reach 5-year high; police say COVID-19’s impact on courts, jails ‘emboldens’ criminals” gives police speculation the headline while public defenders’ refutations of police lies are buried several paragraphs deep.

Police officers cited in the article, as well as U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, claim that courts simply aren’t sending people to jail anymore, which has resulted in petty criminals and drug dealers arming themselves because they know there won’t be any consequences. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is quoted saying that judges are setting low bails for “repeat, violent criminals,” defending the arrests of his police department which was recently identified by the Justice Department as one of the worst in the country.

It’s not until more than halfway through the article that any of these claims are seriously challenged. Randy Gioia of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (the state’s public defender organization) points out that the claims laid out in the beginning of the article simply aren’t true, and that the number of people in jail awaiting trial is higher now than it was in April in both the state as a whole and in Hampden County, specifically. Dangerousness hearings, where prosecutors seek special circumstances to keep someone in jail, have more than doubled over last year’s numbers in Hampden County for July-September 2020 compared with the same period last year. Yet, the article concludes with another quote from Springfield Police Captain Brian Keenan (of the notoriously brutal narcotics unit) doubling down on his claim that “no one is being incarcerated and that’s why we’re having these problems.”

In some ways, this is an improvement over previous reporting in which police perspectives are included without any qualifiers or dissent. But the article makes no attempt to address that the claims of Springfield’s police, Mayor, and a U.S. Attorney are directly contradicted by fact, opting instead for ‘both sides’ reporting that treats the two as equally valid. The real story here is that incarceration, the main tool police have for addressing “crime” which they claim is so effective, is up—so why is crime also up? It would seem to suggest that crime rates and incarceration are actually not correlated at all.

There are a number of reasons why someone might choose to arm themself right now—the desperation of poverty during a global economic downturn in which individuals have received scant relief, or understanding that an extremely dangerous and well-funded gang roams Springfield’s streets with legal impunity (yes, I mean the police)—but we’ll never actually find out as long as journalists insist on regurgitating police propaganda advocating for more incarceration. —Brian Zayatz 

The Sheriff’s Feelings 

The New York Times came to western Massachusetts to shed light on an under-appreciated angle of the eviction crisis: Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s doubts about his role in generating human suffering. 

Cocchi told the Times’s Ellen Berry, “As a law enforcer, my job is to do what I’m asked to do. There’s a lot of things I don’t like to do.” The piece spends nearly three thousand words unpacking the psychology of the sheriff’s guilty conscience. 

“The desperation, the loneliness, you know, the denial,” Robert Hoffman Jr., the Sheriff’s right hand man told Berry, “That’s one of the more difficult elements of the job. People that feel if they avoid it, everything will just go away.”

There are strands of a counter-narrative woven throughout the piece, but the emotions of armed men—pictured in front a blue lives matter flag and wearing a blue lives matter mask, respectively—take center stage.  

The article does mention that other sheriffs in the country have refused to evict people, but stops short of asking Hoffman or Cocchi why they participate in perpetuating a cycle they have moral doubts about. 

The strongest thread of a counternarrative comes from UMass student Timothy Scalona who was evicted at age 14. He told The Times that “[The Sheriff is] executing a system that is targeting and harming poor people. The person I associate with delivering that eviction notice wasn’t the mortgage company, it was the sheriff,” adding, “As far as I remember, he was very compassionate.”

The article photographs Springfield No One Leave’s Rose Webster-Smith, who we profiled back in October, but doesn’t bother to give her a chance to share her feelings let alone mention her organization by name. It doesn’t quote her at all. 

Nor does Berry provide any information about Cocchi’s tenure as sheriff—the public record of which isn’t one of compassion. As The Shoestring reported in 2019, the Hampden County Jail used force disproportionately against people with psychiatric disabilities for, at times, minor rule infractions. Cocchi has capitalized on the opioid epidemic and has rebranded his jail as a “correctional rehabilitation center,” telling the Gazette: “I’m a little tired of certain advocacy groups and people using this topic [opioid addiction], this controversial topic in the commonwealth and around the country, as a political football. That’s disgusting,” (This was part of an attempt to defend his participation in the controversial Section 35 program I wrote about here). And most recently, COVID cases have skyrocketed in the sheriff’s jail. 

Evictions have been a fact of life in the Commonwealth since the Pequot War of 1638. And we can only assume that the people who have been carrying them out since then, like Cocchi, were just following orders. However, we may never know the extent of the turmoil they faced because their stories have not all been written up by The New York Times.  —Will Meyer 

Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and The Shoestring’s city council columnist.

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