By Tim Dunn, Correspondent | December 15, 2020
DARTMOUTH — Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s Office has released the findings of an investigation into a May 1 incident at the Bristol County House of Corrections, concluding that the Sheriff’s Office violated the civil rights of federal immigration detainees while responding to a disturbance inside the ICE facility.
In a report issued Tuesday, the AG’s Office cited “various institutional failures and poor decisions by BCSO leadership,” during the incident that resulted in a use of force against the detainees that the office found to be “disproportionate to the security needs at that time.”
“Our investigation revealed that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the rights of detainees by using excessive force and by seriously risking their health and safety,” said AG Healey in a written statement, calling for a number of reforms to operations at the Sheriff’s Office, outlined in the 57-page report.
In fact, the AG’s Office is recommending that the Department of Homeland Security terminate its partnership with the BCSO or alternatively, that the Massachusetts General Court enact legislation to prevent the Bristol County Sheriff from housing immigration detainees or participating in federal immigration enforcement in any respect.
“This callous disregard for the well-being of immigration detainees is unacceptable and must be addressed through the significant reforms we outline in our report. My office expects the Sheriff’s Office to implement our recommendations to ensure that the serious systemic issues we’ve identified at the facility are remedied,” she said.
Those AG’s investigation found the BCSO violated the civil rights of detainees housed in ICE Facility B in two ways: First, by use of excessive force disproportionate to the circumstances of the situation, and secondly, by acting with “deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to the health of the detainees.”
The report said the BCSO demonstrated a calculated use of force by using a variety of weapons considered less lethal, but still dangerous, including flash bang grenades, pepper ball launchers and pepper spray canisters, and canines, among other tools, against the detainees. Furthermore, the report claimed this use of force was used on detainees who had “exhibited calm and nonviolent behavior for at least an hour before this operation.”
“The BCSO deployed these weapons both indiscriminately upon entry and also specifically against particular detainees who were not combative, assaultive, or otherwise actively resisting staff. Informing our conclusion that the BCSO’s use of force was excessive, we identified myriad violations of the BCSO’s policies and procedures, as well as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) National Detention Standards,” the report said, going on to criticize the Sheriff’s Office for its use of canines and failure to avoid further conflict.
“We are particularly troubled by the BCSO’s unlawful use of canines, lack of attempt to de-escalate the situation or otherwise avoid further conflict, and failure to warn the detainees, including those who may not have understood verbal directives because of language barriers, before using substantial force against them,” the report said.
The investigation also found the Sheriff’s Office to have used an excessive amount of pepper spray and pepper ball during the incident on detainees with underlying pulmonary and respiratory conditions, resulting in the hospitalization of two detainees.
“In the end, so much pepper spray was used that two detainees were taken to the hospital with symptoms of 2 respiratory distress, a third required the administration of emergency chest compressions to be revived, and many detainees reported breathing difficulties in the days and weeks after the May 1 Incident. Many of the detainees also were not given adequate medical attention following exposures to pepper spray, nor were they provided with a timely and sufficient opportunity to decontaminate,” the report said, adding that the detainee who underwent emergency chest compressions was instead placed into solitary confinement.
The AG’s Office maintains that the May 1 incident started with the non-violent refusal of 10 detainees held in ICE Facility B to consent to taking a COVID-19 test and isolation, while also acknowledging destructive conduct by detainees.
“We do not, and cannot, question the clinical and operational judgment of BCSO staff that these particular detainees required testing and isolation, even when those detainees may have sincerely feared the conditions that they would face during their period of isolation,” the AG’s Office said in the report.
“There is also no question that some detainees engaged in destructive conduct that damaged the unit and threw plastic chairs at BCSO staff members earlier in the day,” it said.
The report listed a series of recommendations from the AG’s Office, which includes adopting enhanced language access and enhanced policies and procedures for de-escalation, the enhancement of reporting requirements following a calculated use of force, adopting a training program for staff on diversity, inclusion and cultural humility, strengthening policies for housing federal immigration detainees, and retaining an auditor or consultant at the facility.
The AG’s Office also recommended that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health conduct a review of the medical recordkeeping practices at the Sheriff’s Office, also calling for a review of BCSO policies and procedures by the Executive Office of Public Safety.
In a written response, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office criticized Healey for “demonizing” the department, said the report is “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions,” and questioned why the AG’s Office would interview community advocates but not Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson himself.
The statement commended the officers for risking their lives to “quell a violent altercation” and said, “We stand by the response to the incident, and look forward to the results of the truly independent investigation currently being worked on by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.”
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