DARTMOUTH — Bristol Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson on Wednesday forcefully rejected a state attorney general investigation that found his office had violated the civil rights of 25 federal immigration detainees, calling the probe flawed and driven by politics.
“It’s about halfway down the sewer pipe. That’s about how much value I put into the attorney general’s recommendations,” Hodgson told reporters at a news conference.
A day earlier, Attorney General Maura Healey released a 60-page report describing how Hodgson’s office illegally unleashed dogs on detainees, used excessive force, and showed “callous disregard” for the detainees during a May 1 melee inside Hodgson’s detention center. Tensions over coronavirus testing within the facility resulted in a showdown between detainees and officers, including Hodgson himself.
Healey’s investigation didn’t recommend any criminal charges, but Healey, a Democrat, proposed Hodgson’s office be barred altogether from housing federal detainees and participating in federal immigration enforcement. She also put forth a list of reforms, and warned she may sue if Hodgson doesn’t implement the changes quickly.
Hodgson appeared unmoved Wednesday.
He faulted Healey’s office for not seeking an interview with him and disputed assertions in the report, including one that he had refused to hand over cellphone video of the melee.
He praised his staff for carrying out a “textbook” operation and described their use of force as appropriate. Hodgson disputed Healey’s finding that officers illegally unleashed canines on the detainees and noted that the dogs were muzzled and being used in a dorm setting, not a cell as the report described.
The sheriff said he was struck by a chair during the incident and still experiences nerve problems.
Healey defended the investigation in a statement released after Hodgson’s news conference.
“Just because Sheriff Hodgson does not like my office’s factual findings does not make them any less reliable or true,” she said.
Healey has support within the state’s congressional delegation. US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, along with US Representative William Keating, issued a statement Tuesday saying Hodgson’s office shouldn’t be allowed to continue to hold immigration detainees.
The investigation centered on a confrontation between sheriff’s office personnel and detainees being held on civil immigration violations on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The sheriff’s office is paid by ICE to house immigration detainees.
Hodgson, a Republican who has served as sheriff since 1997, is a firm supporter of federal immigration enforcement and offered inmate labor in 2017 to build a wall on the US border with Mexico.
Hodgson on Wednesday portrayed the detainees as dangerous and violent. He said, without providing any evidence, that some of them had been charged with murder, armed robbery, rape, domestic violence, kidnapping, and a terrorist bombing in Ireland. But he refused to share additional information.
“I can’t give you the people’s names,” Hodgson said.
Healey’s report said most of the detainees were in custody under a federal law that governs the “detention of noncitizens who do not have a serious criminal history.”
“These detainees are held because of alleged civil immigration violations, and not because they have been convicted of or accused of any crimes,” the report said.
The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, is investigating the incident, but has declined to comment. ICE and DHS didn’t respond Tuesday or Wednesday to requests for comment.
Healey’s investigation found 25 immigration detainees were inside the detention center when the confrontation began over COVID-19 testing.
Hodgson struggled with one of the detainees, which set off a larger confrontation.
Once the officers cleared the room, some detainees spent about 20 minutes damaging the unit and barricading the door, the report said.
The detainees were then “calm and nonviolent for an hour,” Healey’s office said, before the sheriff’s office staff confronted them and “executed a calculated use of force” that included a flash-bang grenade, pepper spray and pepper projectiles, anti-riot shields, and dogs.
US District Judge William Young has barred the sheriff’s office from admitting any new immigration detainees and ordered coronavirus testing for staff and people being held at the facility on behalf of the federal government.
Since that lawsuit was initiated, the number of immigration detainees in Bristol County has dropped from 148 people to 19 people as of Dec. 1, according to court filings.