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Behind the Shield

Boston police sergeant who bragged about hitting George Floyd protesters with car was previously accused of sexual assault

Boston Police Sergeant Clifton McHale testified in the double murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in Suffolk Superior Court in July 2017.
Boston Police Sergeant Clifton McHale testified in the double murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in Suffolk Superior Court in July 2017.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Boston police sergeant mired in recent controversy over video footage showing him bragging about intentionally striking protesters with his vehicle is a veteran supervisor with a troubled, complicated past on the police force, according to two people briefed on the matter.

Clifton McHale, a 23-year Boston Police Department veteran with family ties to the department’s upper ranks, was accused in 2005 of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman while in uniform in a police vehicle and agreed to serve a one-year, unpaid suspension following an investigation.

McHale hasn’t been publicly identified by police or city officials. But two people briefed on the matter identified him as the sergeant in the now-viral video, laughingly telling a colleague that he drove into protesters on a chaotic night in downtown Boston.

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“I got to [expletive] Tremont and Park,” he says in the video. “And I was in the middle of the [expletive] street. So then I had to keep coming. I was [expletive] hitting people with the car.”

He says protesters “were all [expletive] around.”

The video footage, published Dec. 18 by online news outlet The Appeal, came from an officer-worn body camera and was part of a trove of footage obtained by a local attorney representing several people arrested in citywide protests on the night of May 31. The video thrust the agency into further controversy, raising questions about the department’s actions during demonstrations that gripped the city, part of a nationwide protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Following the release of the video, the police department opened an investigation and placed a sergeant on administrative leave — though both the department and Mayor Martin J. Walsh have refused to say whether the sergeant in the video is the one on leave.

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Walsh, who defended the department last week amid mounting criticism, declined to discuss the matter Wednesday, citing a pending investigation.

Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, has also declined to identify the sergeant in the video or to comment on the sergeant’s status within the department. Boyle cited an investigation into the events of May 31 and June 1, when a day of peaceful protest was followed by skirmishes and a few violent encounters between demonstrators and police. Clarity could take awhile; the department has been criticized for the length of its internal probes, some of which have taken years to complete.

Attempts to reach McHale were unsuccessful, and a family member referred questions to the police department. Messages left with the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, the union representing sergeants, were not returned.

Footage released showing officer talking about striking protesters with car
Bodycam footage was released by The Appeal, showing a Boston police officer talking about intentionally striking protesters with his vehicle.

McHale, a former Boston College hockey player, had been investigated 15 years ago for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman. McHale was a 32-year-old uniformed officer working a paid detail at The Purple Shamrock near Faneuil Hall on July 17, 2005, when he offered a woman he’d met a ride to her hotel in his unmarked police cruiser, according to past media reports.

But rather than driving the woman directly to the hotel, McHale stopped in an alleyway, according to an internal police investigation.

The woman later told police that she’d passed out, and when she came to, McHale was assaulting her.

An attorney for McHale, Thomas Drechsler, previously told the Associated Press that McHale denied any wrongdoing and was “absolutely innocent.” At the time, the Globe reported that McHale had maintained that any contact between himself and the woman was consensual.

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Then-Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley considered the case for criminal prosecution, but did not charge McHale, citing insufficient evidence.

A year later, McHale agreed with the department to accept a one-year, unpaid suspension after an internal investigation concluded that he had engaged in “inappropriate sexual relations with the highly intoxicated woman,” the Globe reported at the time. Additionally, McHale acknowledged violating rules on take-home police vehicles and failing to properly secure his weapon.

Following the suspension, McHale — whose father is a former Boston police deputy superintendent — returned to the department and was later promoted to sergeant.

He appears to have worked as a sergeant since — with no record of other discipline — though the department declined to release details on his assignment and posting. Last year, according to city records, he earned $210,954, including $61,375 in overtime and detail pay.

In 2017, McHale testified in the double murder trial of football star Aaron Hernandez. He was a responding officer on the night Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado were killed in Boston’s South End and testified that he arrived on the scene to find a friend of the victims with a bullet in his forearm.

In a year marked by nationwide protests about police brutality — many marred by the videotaped actions of officers pushing and overstepping the boundaries of civil rights — Boston’s police force initially earned plaudits from city and state officials.

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But the recently released videos have cast the actions of some officers in a different light.

Officers can be seen shoving and pepper-spraying those gathered peacefully. One officer appears to target protesters for pepper spray, saying at one point, “I want to hit this kid.” In another video, an officer can be seen handing a colleague a $50 necktie that appears to be from a looted store, which the second officer appears to accept.

In body-camera footage captured near Downtown Crossing, McHale can be seen laughing before describing to another officer how he’d struck protesters while driving earlier in the evening.

As McHale speaks, the other officer quickly pushes McHale’s head out of the camera’s view, explaining that his body camera is recording.

When McHale returns to the camera’s frame, he quickly attempts to change his story. “I didn’t hit anybody,” he says.

He added that people were “throwing [expletive].”

Boston police reported 54 arrests that night. Nine officers were injured and transported to the hospital, and 21 police cruisers sustained damage, the department said.

Facing questions Wednesday about the latest in a string of police controversies, Walsh said he has confidence in the department’s ability to police itself. Speaking at a news conference, Walsh praised the work of an independent task force he appointed earlier this year to suggest police reforms, and noted that its recommendations — which include an independent watchdog office, an expanded body camera program, and increased transparency surrounding internal affairs cases — should be implemented in the new year.

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Still, he acknowledged, “I think there’s going to be individual cases with the police department here in Boston and around the country ... that we’re going to have to be watching and monitoring closely.”

After the videos emerged, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office announced it was investigating the case, according to a spokesman who said she “takes this very seriously.”

On Tuesday, Carl Williams, the local attorney who first obtained the dozens of hours of police body-camera footage from the night of the protest, called McHale’s conduct disturbing.

“I’d say there’s a pattern of behavior here,” said Williams, who is representing four people arrested during last spring’s protest. “There’s a lot of things going on that make you say, ‘Not a great employee.’ It’s worrisome.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.