Records obtained by The Shoestring reveal inconsistencies between incident reports and department policies.
By Shelby Lee
[Content warning: police use of force against civilians]
Punching a person in the face. Grabbing and throwing others to the ground. Shocks with electric stun guns and painful compliance techniques. A firearm drawn on an employee of a local cannabis shop.
Those are just some of the details contained in two years of use-of-force documents that The Shoestring has obtained. In January of 2022, Easthampton spent $144,328 — plus an additional $125,000 of grant funding — upgrading its police database in order to track such incidents and compile that data for the sake of transparency. But The Shoestring’s review of internal records raises questions about whether police officers are appropriately reporting those incidents.
The Easthampton Police Department began conducting an annual use-of-force analysis to meet goals set by the mayor’s office and to ensure compliance with a sweeping police-reform bill that then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in December 2020. The law’s wording requires police departments within the state to conduct annual reviews to ensure “bias free policing.” To meet these requirements, the EPD has created a policy and standardized forms, called use-of-force reports and “after-action” reports, to be completed by responding officers and supervisors when force is used on a person.
The Shoestring found that physical-force techniques such as restraint, take-downs, the use of hands/arms/feet/legs and “come-alongs” — a compliance technique involving positional discomfort to move someone — are self-reported in officer narratives. However, those actions appear to be underreported on the department’s use-of-force reports from those same incidents. In the documents The Shoestring reviewed, no corrections were made upon review during the after-action reports. Almost all after-action reports are approved by Lt. Dennis Scribner and reviewed by Police Chief Robert Alberti.
Initial reviews of the department’s use-of force-reports and attached officer narratives are conducted by the EPD themselves and the reporting requirements are also set by the department, aside from state requirements for “electric control weapon” use and use of firearms. State laws prohibit certain types of force completely, like chokeholds, and limit firing into fleeing vehicles under most circumstances. But generally, the law allows the use of physical force.
The Shoestring obtained copies of the department’s 2021 and 2022 use-of-force reports via a public records request. The documents reveal a pattern of inconsistency in use-of-force reporting that seemingly contradicts and neglects some of the reporting requirements outlined in the department’s own use-of-force policy, resulting in underrepresentation of incidents of force used during interactions where multiple officers were present or used multiple types of force.
In a phone interview, Lt. Scribner indicated that the department’s policies and reporting process were still being improved and that the department recently attended training to review and cover police reform and reporting requirements, as well as restraints and duty to intervene.
At a City Council meeting a year ago, former city councilor Lindsey Rothschild questioned whether the department’s policy and database changes would provide third-party oversight of the police department and its data-gathering practices. The city’s “Mayor’s Pledge Work Group” — a five-person committee Mayor Nicole Lachapelle brought together to “develop recommendations for the reform of law enforcement practices” — had deemed that kind of independent oversight essential.
“Who’s going to be responsible for working with this system?” Rothschild asked at the Jan. 19, 2022 City Council meeting. “Who’s going to make sure that the community gets the benefit from it as well? Because that was also part of the mayor’s pledge — that there’s a third party that’s involved … to analyze it.”
In response, IT Director Karin Camihort said an important component of the system is a public portal that provides public-records access to those looking for it. Rothschild stated that they were not satisfied with that answer, that it would not meet the goals of the mayor’s pledge and that accountability would not happen by itself.
In an email, Rothschild told The Shoestring that the City Council’s Public Safety Committee named “engag[ing] in robust data collection, analysis, and regular reporting” as their top priority. Rothschild said that the committee also prioritized partnering with Westfield State University. The mayor met with a member of the school’s criminal justice department, Rothschild said, which then provided the mayor’s office with a contracting proposal with costs.
“At the end of this meeting, I felt optimistic about a positive partnership with WSU,” Rothschild wrote. “However, I was disappointed when we were appropriating funding for the data software that we weren’t also at the same time contracting with a 3rd party (like WSU).”
Rothschild said that if the new software “was truly for the community,” a third party would be needed to create objectivity, to keep the data analysis unbiased and accurate, to build trust with the community and to ensure accountability by identifying “patterns of behavior that could be problematic.” The third party could also identify areas for improvement and where more training or resources were needed, Rothschild added.
In an email to The Shoestring, LaChapelle said that she would speak to Chief Alberti and request that he review the data and “explain any inconsistencies.” She said she wants to review the chief’s findings, as well as any causes and solutions, and wants to “identify the reason(s) for the reporting inconsistencies and proceed with a timeline to solve for any reporting inconsistencies outside outdated software.”
LaChapelle indicated that The Shoestring’s analysis of the inconsistent police reporting data under the new policy was “similar” with that found by the Mayors Pledge Work group. The data reviewed by the work group, though, was collected prior to the implementation of policy changes.
LaChapelle said she was waiting for the launch of the city-wide database to be complete before creating a partnership for “validation of city-wide data.”
The Shoestring’s analysis of the EPD’s use-of-force reports, after-action reports and officer-incident narratives appear to show inconsistency in reporting from April 2021 to December 2022.
In one example of an incident that occurred on April 2, 2021, four EPD officers were present and reported in their narratives that they used multiple types of force. But only one use-of-force report was filed for the use of the laser display of an “electronic control weapon,” or stun gun — in other words, pointing the weapon’s red targeting dot at a person.
During this interaction, involving Easthampton residents who were confronted by officers that entered into their home via an “open” door, there were two incidents of separate officers using physical force to bring a woman to the ground. According to officer narratives, there was also an incident of force in which an officer pushed someone into another room and an additional stun-gun display by a third officer. According to the department’s policy, a minimum of three use-of-force reports should have been made and all types of force used by each officer should have been reported on the use-of-force reports, not just in the officer narratives.
In an after-action report meant to “review and critique use of force with involved officers,” Lt. Scribner accepted and verified those narratives and the single use-of-force report. That use-of-force report and accompanying narratives were deemed “appropriate (use of force) per policy” and accepted by Lt. Scribner, who had filled out that use-of-force report even though he was not one of the responding officers at the scene.
In an incident taking place on June 27, 2021, the department’s records show that multiple officers grabbed, punched and repeatedly tased a man who was allegedly on mushrooms, naked in the street and kept repeating the address of his Easthampton Airbnb to responding officers. Officer reports of the incident repeatedly acknowledge that the man was “confused” and “dazed.” Officers also said that the man largely complied with verbal commands and responded to direct questions until they attempted to physically detain him.
Two officers filed two use-of-force reports for the incident, indicating three separate uses of electric stuns and probes on a single person. All officer narratives depict an inconsistent series of events and force used. The narratives indicate that between five and six officers were present and that two officers used stun guns more than once. The records say that a third officer made a physical take down — with the assistance of two other officers — as well as self-reporting a closed-fist punch to that person’s face for reportedly giving another officer a “1,000 yard stare.”
Based on written policy, a minimum of four use-of-force reports should have been made. However, no officers reported physical force in their reports. The officer who engaged in “physical compliance techniques” — tackling someone to the ground and punching a person in the face — made no use-of-force report at all.
An after-action report for the June 27 incident, completed by Officer Ryan Murphy and Lt. Scribner, accepts the conflicting officer narratives, incomplete use-of-force reports and force used as “appropriate and justified per policy.”
In another instance on Jan. 2, 2022, an officer wrote and reviewed his own use-of-force report and after-action report. Two separate stun-gun cartridges were deployed, a total of four probes, and two officers were present at the scene, according to the incident report. However, only one report was filed. The department’s policy requires that two use-of-force reports should have been made.
In a road-rage related standoff on Dec. 21, 2022, that occurred in the parking lot of the cannabis shop INSA, officers’ narratives describe them arriving and drawing a firearm and a stun gun on a person. Their reasoning was that a dispatcher told them that one of the people had a knife. Police narratives don’t say that they ever witnessed the person wielding a knife, but that upon review of video footage captured by INSA, one of the people could be seen holding something in their hand prior to the officers’ arrival; that was confirmed by the second driver. The person who faced police at gunpoint was an INSA employee who had been followed off of the interstate by someone they had allegedly thrown a water bottle at, according to the reports.
Only one use-of-force report was filed after the incident. Lt. Scribner and Officer Chad Alexander completed supervisor review sections stating “use of force justified per policy.” At no point prior to drawing weapons do the officer narratives reflect any attempts to use de-escalation techniques or available barriers like vehicles. Narratives indicate they believed they were responding appropriately because a third party was being threatened with a knife. However, the narratives indicate the other driver was in an enclosed vehicle. State police were also on scene.
The EPD’s use-of-force policy contains some language from state general laws verbatim. However, while the state suggests physical force be used to “prevent imminent harm” and only after “de-escalation tactics have been attempted and failed or are not feasible,” the eighth and most recent revision of the EPD use-of force-policy (revised 01/27/21, 03/02/21 and 11/10/22) states that physical force is “always to maintain and/or re-establish control over a volatile situation.” It goes on to say that “no written directive can offer definitive answers to every situation in which the use of force might be appropriate.”
The EPD has included in this policy a section that details officer requirements in regards to use-of-force reporting. There is no written requirement to report use of de-escalation tactics when filing a use-of-force report, although there is a check-box on the use-of-force report form for this purpose.
A use-of-force report is required under this policy when officers use:
- “physical force greater than handcuffing a compliant detainee, such as ‘soft hand physical compliance techniques’ or ‘come-alongs’”
- “the application of weaponless physical force results in an injury (either noticeable or complained of) to the officer or detainee”
- “less lethal force” including “spark displays of an ECW (electronic control weapon)”
The policy further states that “in all incidents involving the use of less lethal force, all involved officers shall prepare and submit a use of force report — this includes spark displays of an ECW (electronic control weapon).”
“Each application of the ECW is a separate application of a use of force and a separate use of force report must be filed for each application,” the policy says. “All officers involved in the use of lethal force shall file a separate use of force report.”
No section of the policy defines “soft hand physical compliance techniques” or “come-alongs.” Speaking to The Shoestring, Lt. Scribner referred to them as “an escort position” compliance technique involving the positioning of a person’s arms. Scribner made reference to a state use-of-force regulation to clarify that those techniques did not require reporting, although the wording of the EPD’s use-of-force policy suggests that they do require reporting if the person is “non-compliant.”
When questioned by The Shoestring about reporting requirements, Lt. Scribner ultimately concluded that “each officer is required to complete a use-of-force report for force used,” and that in situations involving multiple types of force used by a single officer, all types of force are “required to (be) put on the form, and further spelled out in the narrative.” Lt. Scribner confirmed that the requirements for reporting include officer takedowns and hits.
Shelby Lee is a caretaker of pets and gardens, with a background in environmental science.
The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page