Consultant clears UMass officers, suggests correctives

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AMHERST — Regular de-escalation training for police officers at the University of Massachusetts, greater flexibility on when to make arrests and in-depth reviews of pedestrian detour plans are among a consultant’s recommendations to the university after a student’s arrest generated four complaints.

An executive summary released this week by Margolis Healy and Associates provides the university advice on how to improve its police department and practices, while also clearing the two officers involved of wrongdoing in the Nov. 1 arrest of a student on charges of disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a police officer. UMass spent nearly $70,000 for the company’s work.

“Based on the information gleaned during this external investigation, a preponderance of the evidence supports the contention that the pedestrian entered the roadway despite the closed sidewalk and the officer’s directions to return to the sidewalk,” the summary states, noting that the preponderance of evidence standard means that evidence on one side outweighs the evidence on the other side. “Multiple witnesses reported observing the pedestrian escalate the encounter with the officer.”

The summary continues: “The investigation discerned no evidence to support an allegation that the officers’ actions were motivated by a bias or prejudice predicated by any inalienable, overt, inferred, or implied characteristic against the pedestrian.”

In an email to the campus, Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, confirmed what the president of the New England Police Benevolent Association said this week — that the officers did not conduct themselves in a manner inconsistent with Massachusetts state law, department policy, procedure, practice and directive, and that there was no evidence supporting an allegation that the officers’ actions were motivated by a bias or prejudice, or that they used excessive or improper force.

“Importantly, UMPD is committed to identifying and eliminating bias in policing,” LaBanc wrote. “For this reason, along with our university’s commitment to an equitable, inclusive campus environment, we requested Margolis Healy and Associates go beyond the individual findings of this case to offer opportunities for improvement based on their review.”

The arrest came when a student near an on-campus construction site entered the roadway, despite being told not to by police. Several witnesses contacted the chancellor’s office expressing concern over the treatment of the student by police. That led to four formal complaints being filed against UMass police officers involved in the arrest. The department, by policy, commits to investigating “reports or accusations made against members of the department, or the department in general.”

Margolis Healy presented several recommendations to align the department’s work with industry-wide best practices. Some of the recommendations are already part of the department’s training and procedures.

Among these are reviewing the department’s existing use of discretion policy, meaning that instead of placing someone in custody the person might instead be directed to a diversion program; continuing to offer de-escalation training throughout officers’ careers, along with crisis intervention, implicit bias awareness, and more that is outlined in the department’s 2021 Police Reform Initiatives; working with the UMass Environmental Health and Safety and UMass Facilities on pedestrian detour plans; and modifying the department’s mobile vehicle recording policy, adopting Active Bystander for Law Enforcement (ABLE) training and adding body-worn video cameras.

LaBanc wrote that all of these recommendations will be reviewed and discussed with members of the Community/Police Advisory Board, a group of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff charged with making recommendations to her and Police Chief Tyrone Parham on improving campus safety, police-community communications, changes in police policies and the citizens’ complaint processes.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the university spent $69,900 on Margolis Healy’s work. Between Dec. 4, 2022 and Jan. 10, 2023, the consultants reviewed video recordings made by those nearby, police radio recordings and police incident reports. They also interviewed 15 individuals with knowledge of the matter, including eight witnesses, four complainants, the arrestee and both involved police officers. The investigators conducted their review by video, phone and in person.

The comprehensive external review will remain a confidential document pertaining to personnel matters. UMass also will not discuss the specifics of the case.

“Student Affairs and Campus Life staff have provided and continue to provide care and support for this student as we would for any member of our community,” LaBanc wrote. “Out of respect for the student’s privacy and the independence of the judicial process, we will not provide any further updates on this front.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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