If funded, the Capital Improvement Plan would make the small city PD more ready to conduct crowd control, use force, and make arrests.
By Shelby Lee
EASTHAMPTON — Internal documents from the Easthampton Police Department reveal the department plans to purchase new equipment, including but not limited to assault rifles, a variety of vehicles, and crowd control equipment like remote kevlar restraints and ballistic shields.
The Shoestring obtained a copy of the EPD’s “capital improvement plan” via a public records request. This plan covers budgets from Fiscal Year ‘24 to Fiscal Year ‘28 and outlines the items the department wants to purchase and associated costs. This year alone the department plans on spending $390,250 to purchase additional weapons and vehicles. The document shows the department intends to fund these purchases from the city’s “free cash.”
The items the department plans to purchase in FY24 include:
– Two hybrid police cruisers ($150,000)
– An electric Ford Mustang ($65,000+)
– A Ford T-350 “Crime Scene Wagon” ($75,000)
– Two ballistic shields ($6,000)
– Three “patrol rifles” ($5,250)
– An electric Ford F-150 “Lightning Police Responder” ($65,000)
– Twelve remote Kevlar restraints known as “BolaWrap” ($15,600)
– 72 BolaWrap cartridges ($2,880) and batteries ($5,520)
EPD Chief Robert Alberti did not respond to an email requesting comment on Wednesday.
These planned purchases point to a future department with a larger vehicle fleet that is more ready to conduct crowd control, make arrests and possibly use force.
One piece of equipment that has drawn concerns from some, including Human Rights Watch, is the BolaWrap remote restraints.
Under the “description and justification” section of the capital improvement plan for the BolaWrap, Alberti wrote that the “remote restraint device is a hand-held pre-escalation apprehension tool for police that discharges a Kevlar cord to restrain uncooperative suspects or nonresponsive persons in crisis from a distance.”
Alberti’s description also suggests that the department will not create reports when officers use this weapon on people under the department’s use-of-force policy, stating that BolaWrap “doesn’t result in injury or use of force.”
Training videos from the company Wrap Technologies show officers wearing significant eye and ear protection when using the device. There is no information or video offered to show what happens if the cord is used around someone’s neck or face, accidentally or on purpose. The ends of the device have metal hooks that resemble fishing lures.
The EPD’s capital improvement plan also includes a “crime scene/accident reconstruction” station and software — a set of optics equipment that is designed to create 2D and 3D diagrams with “impressive animation … ideal for courtroom presentations.”
Additionally, the department plans to purchase the “Cellebrite digital forensics program,” a multi-device suite and software program that would collect data from “the widest range of digital devices” for the purposes of accessing “critical data evidence” from “smartphones, drones, SIM cards, SD cards, GPS devices, and more,” according to the company’s website.
Neither of these items include pricing information but internal EPD emails to Alberti, which The Shoestring obtained with a public records request, indicate that the Cellebrite suite has a “significant” yearly cost in addition to the cost of the initial purchase.
Cellebrite, which is headquartered in Israel, received a scathing security analysis in April 2021 from Moxie Marlinspike — the creator of the encrypted messaging platform Signal — alleging a variety of security flaws and legal licensing issues. The company has also faced scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit in 2020 regarding privacy and transparency concerns after it became apparent via court records that law enforcement agencies, as well as the FBI, had been using the software.
The company had also previously entered into a $2.2 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in 2017. An MIT Technology Review report from August 2020 revealed details of a petition filed by human rights attorneys in Tel Aviv to stop Cellebrite exports to Hong Kong, citing the widespread use of the software on detained demonstrators during the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
The department also plans to purchase more hybrid vehicles in FY25 through FY28 and expects to spend at least $150,000 per year on the purchase of those vehicles, according to the capital improvement plan. This is on the heels of the department’s purchase of two Tesla vehicles in 2022, two hybrid vehicles in 2020, and an unspecified “police interceptor” in 2021.
Internal records show that the department has new vehicles already: five from 2019, three from 2018 – including two motorcycles – one from 2017, and two from 2016. These records indicate the department currently has at least 20 vehicles registered and in use. Prior to Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s election in 2017, the EPD’s yearly budget included funding for one new vehicle every year. According to the department’s maintenance records, none of these vehicles have required major repairs that were outside of warranty.
LaChapelle endorsed at least some of the vehicle purchases as part of a shift to all electric city vehicles through a partnership with private tech company MoveEV. The Somerville-based company uses an AI technology portal for municipal employees and departments to calculate fuel savings, plan their transition to an electric vehicle, provide unspecified “training,” and use federal and state tax incentives and rebates. The company refers to these state provided rebates, tax incentives, and “training” as employee benefits.
In a March 28 press release, LaChapelle and MoveEV CEO David Lewis touted the move to electric vehicles as a “game-changer for the environment” that will lower certain types of emissions and move towards “sustainability.” But a survey of their public statements indicate that neither have addressed lithium and cobalt sourcing — necessary components in electric vehicles — which is destroying land that is significant to Indigenous peoples and wildlife.
In addition to its current vehicle fleet, the EPD also already has a large arsenal of weaponry compared to the size of the department’s staff, types of calls for service that they receive, and the department’s own use-of-force reports.
The EPD’s 2022 annual report, for example, explains that the department mostly receives calls for property checks. They received 4,831 calls for property checks in that year. The second-highest requested service was for personal assistance with 1,859 calls received. The next highest categories are listed as “follow up investigation” with 572 calls received and “animal complaint” with 551 calls received.
The department’s use-of-force reporting also raises questions about the need to request additional weaponry. Over the past two years, members of the EPD have only faced 13 situations where they used physical force and deemed it necessary to “gain control” of a situation. Of those incidents, eleven involved either the display or use of an electric stun gun and two incidents involved a single officer drawing a firearm. In both instances involving guns, the firearm used was a department assigned pistol.
The EPD has 29 full time officers, five part-time officers, one civilian assistant to the chief, and one grant-funded “mental health and wellness coordinator.” They have enough weapons to assign every officer one handgun and nine officers are assigned two handguns. Officers also have access to vehicle mounted rifles, electric stun-guns, and high capacity crowd control equipment.
According to department records, the EPD currently has:
- 49 pistols (3 models of glock: g17, g19, g43X)
- 15 rifles (13 AR-15, 1 DPMS.308 rifle, 1 Ruger 10-22 rifle) not assigned
- Two 40mm “less lethal” launchers (capable of foam rounds, wooden baton rounds, rubber scatter shot rounds, bean bags, plastic rounds, and marking rounds)
- Two “Pepperball FTC” launchers capable of firing 10 to 12 rounds per second, with a hopper capacity of 160 rounds
- 24 Taser X2s
The EPD created a “Pepperball policy” dated September 2021 to go with the “Pepperball FTC launchers” — equipment that had not previously shown up on the department’s armor’s log until 2023. The policy explains in detail the effect of Pepperball when used on a person, describing how the projectiles “subdue” people by “inflaming mucous membrane[s]” of the nose, lungs, and respiratory tract, causing shortness of breath and coughing. It then says response to inhaling the substance “varies greatly” among people and that the projectiles can produce “abrasions, bruises, and or welts.”
In a phone call with The Shoestring, LaChapelle said the EPD acquired the Pepperball launchers via grant funding. The EPD has a variety of funding avenues at their disposal, some of which have no outside oversight, such as money the department gets through asset seizure and forfeiture. Asset forfeiture is a process by which law enforcement can take property from people, including those not yet convicted of any crime, if they claim that property is connected to illegal activity.
The purchases suggested under the capital improvement plan could move forward in a few ways. Initially, it was difficult to get an understanding from elected officials of the various funding processes and avenues available to the EPD.
In an email to The Shoestring, City Council President Homar Gomez said capital improvements are “not part of the budget presented to the council,” though he then seemed to contradict himself by saying capital improvements go “first to the mayor and then the council.”
Dan Rist, the current Finance Committee chair, said capital needs “typically” do not appear in the budget and that they are dealt with via supplemental appropriations post budget. He also said that this year, the mayor “wishes to use capital stabilization” to fund municipal fleet vehicles “with an eye towards eventual electrification.”
The city charter states that the mayor “shall submit” a capital improvement program to the City Council at least 150 days before the start of each fiscal year.
“It shall include,” the charter states, “(a) A clear and concise general summary of its contents; (b) A list of all capital improvements proposed to be undertaken during the next ensuing five years, with supporting information as to the need for each capital improvement; (c) Cost estimates, methods of financing and recommended time schedules for each improvement, and, (d) The estimated annual cost of operating and maintaining each facility and piece of major equipment involved.”
LaChapelle explained that there are various ways the EPD may acquire items in their capital plan.
Under her administration, LaChapelle said the department’s capital plan is best described as an “informed, educated wish list.” She explained that “the ideal use for capital funds is expenditure that will make a long-term impact” and that she asks departments to look ahead for items or projects that will go over $25,000.
LaChapelle said she aims to have the capital plan looking very different in the next 10 months by shifting focus from individual items to long-term goals and maintenance that align with community needs.
“I don’t think our dollars match our community right now, and I think that is in flux,” she said.
When asked about lower price tag items in the EPD’s capital plan, such as weapons and ballistic shields, LaChapelle said she prefers items like that to be in the capital plan because “there is a lot of grant money to do that.”
She described the grant process as “murky” and somewhat unilateral for the EPD, explaining that there is an outside body that determines what items are approved at a state level for the police to purchase. Although grants require a signature from the mayor, she does “not to date get very involved in telling departments what they can or can’t go for on grants.”
“They have to have the capacity to manage it,” she said, adding that the process does not involve the City Council unless city funds are requested.
The EPD can also use grant funds or their own personal accounts, like asset seizure and forfeiture accounts, to purchase items — like the Cellebrite suite — without City Council or public oversight. When asked about the yearly costs of those items and whether they could be written into line items of the department’s budget, LaChapelle said: “I’m not saying they wouldn’t do that. And could they do that? Yes.”
“I ask for the details, and I could say no, that can’t be in that line item,” she added.
The budget that is presented to the City Council does not usually indicate specifics of department plans for funds other than general line-item titles. Members of the public and Finance Committee have to inquire about specifics of line items during finance hearings.
Previous versions of the EPD budget include line items such as “police equipment,” “police specials,” “computer equipment,” “public safety supplies,” “misc machines & equip,” and “equipment.”
Last summer, in a budget hearing, EPD’s Chief Alberti appeared before the City Council. During the 40 minutes in which the EPD budget was discussed, councilors only questioned nine out of 41 line items during the presentation. Those line items included $500 for “food and food service supplies” and $1,000 for “books and periodicals.”
No one questioned a $13,000 line item for “public safety supplies.”
Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at email@example.com
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