Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Holyoke police officer Thomas Leahy was being sued for unnecessary use of force in another incident. He was not involved in the case.
We’re unable to shake the terror of George Floyd’s final eight minutes and 46 seconds. We say the names of Breonna Taylor and Philando Castile to assert that Black Lives Matter in the face of unnecessary, overwhelming police force against people of color.
Yet it might come as a surprise that a horrifying example of police brutality occurred in Western Massachusetts. One we have largely ignored for too long.
Three Holyoke police officers beat a 12-year-old Latino boy in 2014 after he tried to stop a neighbor from committing suicide. The details, revealed in a lawsuit the city quietly settled several months ago, are chilling. So is the response by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and police officials before, during, and after this case.
According to court documents, officers faced no discipline at all. Yet it is clear from their words, and the deposition of since-retired police chief James Neiswanger that police flouted regulations, failed to file mandated use-of-force reports, and spun a narrative debunked by medical records. Neiswanger, meanwhile, praised his officers’ actions, while providing wholly insufficient oversight. Then, in his own deposition, the chief said that he never delivered a report to Morse about officers’ use of force because the mayor never asked for one.
When I asked Hector Pineiro, an attorney for the boy’s family, about oversight by Morse and Holyoke police, he let out a sigh. “There was none whatsoever,” he said. They didn’t care, he said, using a vulgar phrase.
Now Morse is running for Congress, touting progressive credentials in a challenge to longtime Representative Richard Neal. Like Morse, I’ve been disappointed with Neal and briefly considered running against the incumbent this year.
I wanted to see how Morse led his city when a child of color was beaten by Holyoke police, so I examined the publicly available court records and medical reports in this case. What I discovered left me outraged.
Here’s what happened around sunset on Feb. 8, 2014, according to court records and depositions from the civil suit filed by the boy’s mother in 2017: The boy’s mom asked him to bring his younger brother home from shooting hoops. Along the way, the 12-year-old encountered a suicidal neighbor with a gun. The boy followed him, hoping to help, as did a nearby adult. When they crossed a canal downtown, the armed, suicidal man took several shots at passing cars. The boy wanted no part of that. Holyoke police arrived and apprehended the shooter. The adult made clear that police arrested the only shooter. But police then spied the 12-year-old, approximately 100 yards away. One officer pulled his service weapon. They ordered him to his knees. He complied. Then he heard men charging him. He felt a kick and soon, lost consciousness. When he came to in the patrol car, he testified, he had no memory of what had ensued. He was taken to the police station, charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Photos, medical records, and depositions fill in the details. All three police officers beat the boy. After he was booked, he was taken by ambulance to Holyoke Medical Center, and vomited en route. At the hospital, doctors diagnosed a concussion. A day later, his mother took him to Bay State Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed a head injury, a left anterior scalp laceration, a deviated septum, and a small hematoma on the anterior left scalp. They documented contusions to his head, face, chest, and back.
Remember, the child was unarmed, he stood only 5 feet 2 inches, he was 12. He posed no threat to the officers — Thomas Leahy, James Dunn, and Jabet Lopez.
In Dunn’s deposition, he attests that he saw the boy crouched down, and said, “I didn’t see anything in his hands.” Nevertheless, he charged. Dunn tackled the boy, 250 pounds crashing atop a pre-teen who weighed 110.
“I remember hitting him as hard as I could,” Dunn said. The child curled in defense. Three officers rained blow after blow. Knee strikes to the ribs. Punches to the head. One testified he used his baton.
“That’s when you think you punched him as hard as you could in the head?” Dunn is asked.
“Although you’re not sure how many times all together, at least two?”
“At least two.”
While Dunn punched the boy in the head and Leahy struck him on the side, Lopez delivered baton blows. Leahy testified that he saw Lopez deliver those strikes while the boy lay prone. Only Lopez filed a use of force report, as required under both state law for injured prisoners and city policy. Lopez’s form, however, attested that the boy had been “assaultive” and did not mention his array of injuries. Dunn, meanwhile, claimed he didn’t know if he had to fill out a use of force report for hitting a civilian in the head. When Dunn was asked in his deposition to explain the bruises and abrasions in photos, he suggested that the boy got them from “fighting with the police.”
Medical experts who examined the records and photographs cast doubt upon the veracity of the officers’ story. The charges the officers brought against the boy for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct were dismissed.
The boy’s mother says that she was promised an investigation. Holyoke police claim, ironically, that she did not fill out the necessary paperwork. (She says she was never informed about that step.) Use of force reports should have moved through the department’s chain of command. The chief’s testimony makes clear that did not happen either. The mayor allowed the officers to remain on the street and the chief to keep his job.
Pineiro told me, “I thought it was appalling. What this case showed,” is that in Holyoke, “tracking how officers used force was not a big deal.”
How many times did police get away with excessive force while Morse and the police chief looked the other way? With the city’s disregard for transparency and accountability, we have no way of knowing. Leahy was asked in the deposition whether anyone inside the Holyoke Police Department ever followed up on a use of force report. “No.” He’s asked, “After you filed some of the reports you filed, did you have to have any additional training regarding your job?” The answer, again, “no.” Lopez said that no one from internal affairs ever asked him about the case. Pineiro says it looks to him like no one read these depositions carefully enough to appropriately reset the department’s training, chain of command, and internal affairs.
In January, Holyoke settled the police brutality suit against the city and officers for $65,000. The city attorney suggested that under the circumstances the city was getting off easy. As part of the settlement, the family signed a non-disclosure agreement. When I e-mailed Morse’s campaign this week to ask about this case, he avoided specific questions and cited that non-disclosure agreement. Morse insisted that police should be held accountable, but did not answer whether his officers had been. He said that his department had undergone a transformation, that he was actively involved in hiring new officers, and that 90 percent of Holyoke police had now undergone deescalation training. He sent a link to a new Holyoke policy that attempts to enforce the proper reporting of excessive police force.
Those reforms arrived in June 2020 — more than six years after the beating — and amid national outrage over police brutality. Morse was in the middle of his fourth term and a candidate for Congress.
Morse averted his gaze. He didn’t call for the officers to resign. He didn’t launch an outside investigation or call for criminal charges. He didn’t take any meaningful public actions to hold his police department accountable for the beating of a 12-year-old boy who heroically tried to prevent a man from killing himself.
Instead, this boy was left to struggle with the trauma of the arrest and his injuries. His mother testified that he spent the next several years being treated for anxiety and panic attacks, began to struggle in school, and often feared leaving the house, she said. He was terrified of open spaces and the police.
Morse’s campaign, meanwhile, according to Federal Election Commission reports, collected $1,900 from Officer Leahy’s brother, Patrick, also a Holyoke police officer, and $4,800 from Charles Emma, the Florida attorney who handled the case for the city.
We say the names of victims of excessive police force to express our outrage and shame. We cannot say the name of the boy beaten by Holyoke police under Alex Morse’s tenure.
We cannot say his name because it cannot be released. This boy was 12.
David Daley lives in Haydenville and is author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”