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Report finds physical abuse, intimidation at state Trial Court Officer Academy

Recruits at the state’s Trial Court Officer Academy in Chicopee were repeatedly hit in the face and strangled by senior staff, who created a culture of fear and intimidation, according to the findings of a months-long investigation released late last week.

According to the 100-page report, which includes many redactions, recruits and witnesses reported incidents of violence against at least five members of the academy’s last class, and members of several classes “described a culture of fear, intimidation, humiliation, disrespect, punishment-based discipline, and retaliation.”

Videos of classes at the academy located at Westover Air Reserve Base confirm some of the allegations, according to the report, which is dated Dec. 17 and was written by a team of independent assessors consisting of former law enforcement officials Nancy McGillivray, Elin Graydon, and Kevin Burke.

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The academy was closed in September after abuse allegations first arose and it remains closed, according to a statement from Paula Carey, chief justice of the Trial Court, and Trial Court administrator John Bello.

Carey and Bello said the Trial Court has reviewed the report, which was released Thursday, and is considering the assessors’ recommendations for change.

“The report also raises serious concerns and allegations regarding conduct at and oversight of the Academy, which will require further examination,” they said. “We will take all action that is necessary to address the problems outlined in the report.”

The union representing Trial Court officers, SEIU NAGE Local 458, did not respond to a request for comment. The union posted a notice on its website Friday saying it had received the report and was reviewing its contents.

The team of assessors interviewed members of the academy’s most recent class, including those who left or were dismissed; instructors; and anyone else who wanted to provide information, according to the report.

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Members of some earlier academy classes reported being strangled, struck in the face, and grabbed by the neck, and witnesses corroborated their accounts.

“These acts were contrary to the curriculum and the Academy’s own rules and training philosophy and were outside the bounds of proper defensive tactics training, policy, and procedures,” the team wrote.

One experienced court officer told assessors that an academy staff member routinely belittled recruits, calling them “dogs,” and once “kicked [a recruit’s] clothing and items all over the place and screamed at him, ‘Get out! You are lucky you have your … job or you would be on the street.’ "

A new court officer said, “I was in the choke hold, I could not breathe; had to ‘tap out’ to stop the choke hold.”

Others said they had been sprayed with pepper spray from a close distance and then cleaned with just a garden hose and no towel to dry themselves off. One recruit said he was then forced to go to dinner with the spray still on his clothes and burning his eyes.

“Had a written test the next day,” he said. “I passed it. It was ridiculous. My eyes were hurting so bad.”

When the recruit went home that weekend, he went to an urgent care facility where he was told he had an eye infection, he said. Several recruits reported requiring medical attention for their eyes after being pepper sprayed and said it took them weeks to recover.

The academy adopted a “paramilitary” training model similar to a boot camp in 2014 as part of an effort to “professionalize” itself, imposing strict discipline and requiring time-consuming daily drills, but it has used people as drill instructors who were not trained or qualified for the job, according to the report.

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An assistant chief court officer told assessors that court officers wanted to be trained like State Police, Department of Correction officers, or sheriff’s deputies so that they could qualify for a more generous retirement plan, according to the report.

Over the seven years since the academy adopted the paramilitary model, it did not review or change any of its policies, the team wrote.

The paramilitary “model is more applicable to law enforcement training officers who operate under the executive branch of government than to Massachusetts Court Officers who operate under the judicial branch,” according to the report. “As such, the paramilitary model was flawed and ill-advised.”

The assessors recommended the academy consider adopting “a non-residential, daytime collegiate model, a format more closely aligned with the job duties of Court Officers.”

The report cited inadequate instructor evaluation, high turnover, failure to pay bills on time, deficiencies in the curriculum, and an incident in which an Academy senior manager pressured a recruit to change a report about injuries sustained during a defensive tactic exercise so that it did not reflect poorly on the academy.

Assessors said the academy’s office has lacked basic equipment, the airplane hangar used for training is dirty, and that using an outside facility such as the Air Reserve base was “detrimental to the Academy in terms of location and the adequacy of the facilities.”

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The report recommends that the academy be moved to a more appropriate facility with classrooms that have current technology and that offers adequate space and is provided with the necessary supplies.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.