By Dusty Christensen
HOLYOKE — Holyoke’s police chief has reinstated the license to carry firearms of a city police officer who lost his department-issued handgun while off duty.
Last November, Holyoke officer Kevin Whalen reported his department-issued handgun stolen when he couldn’t find it in his car after picking up food from a Chicopee restaurant. At the time, investigators in Chicopee found no evidence of theft after watching surveillance footage of the restaurant’s parking lot, according to police reports. The investigation then moved to Belchertown, since Whalen had been at a gym there before getting food in Chicopee
Belchertown police found no surveillance footage from that gym, but they did find probable cause that Whalen improperly stored the large-capacity firearm — a felony charge — after he told them he had placed the Glock 21 unsecured under his passenger seat to drive to the Planet Fitness from training at the Holyoke Revolver Club.
After Belchertown Detective Robert Mann finished his investigation in December, a Belchertown police spokesperson said the department sent the case to Eastern Hampshire District Court — the process law enforcement follows in Massachusetts when they accuse someone of a crime but don’t arrest them. From there, it is up to court officials to decide whether to charge the person with a crime.
In Whalen’s case, the court never issued a criminal complaint against Whalen. And now, Holyoke Police Chief David Pratt has reinstated Whalen’s license to carry firearms nearly 10 months after he first suspended his license, according to court documents.
Whalen’s attorney, Joan Dietz, did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment. Capt. Matthew Moriarty, who handles communications for the Holyoke Police Department, did not say whether Whalen was disciplined for the incident or whether the gun was ever found.
“Investigation is still open,” Moriarty wrote in a Sept. 26 email. Neither Moriarty nor Pratt responded to follow-up questions.
Unlike any other state in the country, Massachusetts has a “secret court system” in which unelected clerk magistrates can hold closed-door, “show-cause” hearings when law enforcement accuses someone who hasn’t been arrested of a crime. In those hearings, clerk magistrates decide to either issue criminal charges or dismiss the case.
However, because of the secretive nature of those hearings, it’s unclear whether Whalen appeared before a clerk magistrate for a show-cause hearing in Eastern Hampshire District Court.
When I was reporting on this case in early February for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Assistant Clerk Magistrate Scott Rathbun told me that “even the question of whether or not a hearing was scheduled, held, etc. cannot be disclosed.”
“We cannot confirm or deny that information,” Rathbun said in an email at the time.
In Massachusetts, a person is legally allowed to have a loaded firearm in the car only if that gun is “under the direct control of the person.” Large-capacity rifles or shotguns in someone’s car must be “contained within the locked trunk of the vehicle or in a locked case or other secure container” under state law. A police officer is exempt from that law only when that officer “is acting within the scope of the person’s official duties.”
Anyone convicted of breaking those laws must have their license to carry immediately revoked and cannot be issued a new one for one year, state law says.
Because Whalen was never charged with a crime, though, on Feb. 17 his attorney petitioned a Holyoke District Court judge to review the suspension of his license to carry.
“No criminal complaint has issued against Kevin Whalen for this allegation,” Dietz wrote in a court filing.
Then, on Sept. 6, Whalen and his attorney withdrew that petition for judicial review. The reason: “Chief David Pratt, Chief of the Holyoke Police Department, has reinstated Mr. Whalen’s license to carry firearms,” the court filing says.
Whalen isn’t the first Holyoke officer to lose a gun or other police equipment.
Last year, someone broke into a Holyoke police officer’s car and stole two ballistic vests and two ammo magazines, according to then-police chief Manny Febo.
In 2011, Lt. John Hart, then a sergeant, lost a department-issued sniper rifle, according to reporting from The Republican. Then, around five months later, then-mayor Alex Morse was on a ride-along with police when a tipster reportedly found the gun in an alley.
“The reality is my community policing cops got a tip and they followed up on it,” then-police chief James Neiswanger told The Republican at the time. “There was no set up.”
Hart was suspended for five days for that incident. Three years later, he was suspended for 10 days after leaving his gun in a restroom at the Holyoke Mall, though he soon after recovered it, according to The Republican.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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