Oct 05, 2021

Investigation into alleged hazing, abuses at court officer academy underway

Written by: Kris Olson
Published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

It will be another month before a review of allegations of hazing and other abuses at the eight-week training academy for court officers at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee is complete.

But the fallout has already begun, it seems.

Two “high-ranking employees” of the academy have been put on paid leave pending the completion of the investigation, Boston 25 News has reported.

Lawyers Weekly has been told that the two employees are the assistant director in the Trial Court Security Department’s Standards & Training Division and a lead instructor at the academy, but a Trial Court spokesperson declines to confirm their identities or their job status.

“The Trial Court has no comment on the status of individual employees at this time,” Jennifer Donahue writes in response to an inquiry.

The lead instructor is at the heart of the alleged incident that set the investigation into the training academy in motion.

During the May 4 hearing on the nomination of Maureen Walsh to the Appeals Court, Governor’s Councilor Joseph C. Ferreira said he knew someone — his future son-in-law — who had been “thrown out” of the academy within the last two weeks.

According to Ferreira, the lead instructor had slapped his daughter’s fiancé — a former professional football player and New England Strongman competitor — in the face.

When his future son-in-law blew the whistle on the incident, leaders of the academy came up with a pretext to give him the boot, claiming the candidate had used excessive force in a drill 48 hours earlier, Ferreira says.

Walsh, a former Massachusetts Parole Board chair and District Court judge who is married to a retired trooper and whose sister was one of Massachusetts’ first female troopers, agreed with Ferreira that how officers are trained can impact how they perform on the job. She also concurred that there are limits to what one should have to endure to be admitted into the ranks.

It is perhaps notable that Ferreira finds what has been going on at the court officer academy beyond the pale, as he is no stranger to the rigors of a police training academy. Ferreira retired in 2014 after 30 years in law enforcement, the last nine as Somerset’s police chief. He also served as president of the Southeastern Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association.

Since raising the issue publicly, his phone and email have been “blowing up” with similar complaints, Ferreira reports.

At a subsequent Governor’s Council meeting, Ferreira read an email from a participant who entered the academy with eyes wide open that the experience would be “somewhat stressful and chaotic.”

“However, the stress and chaos should always be teachable moments,” she wrote. She called the investigation “long overdue.”

“Their ‘curriculum’ does not teach skills for the job; rather, it breeds a hostile work environment, encourages sexual harassment, promotes a retaliatory interaction between recruits, and causes unnecessary physical injury at the hands of the instructors,” she wrote.

The email offered several specific examples. A number of relatively new mothers dropped out of the academy in the first week because female instructors ridiculed them for having a difficult time being away from their children, she said.

The writer also relayed the harrowing end to a fighting drill that started out with recruits being asked to run a typical obstacle-course-style gauntlet. But for the writer and other female recruits — but just the female recruits — the drill ended with them on their backs with a drill instructor choking them to the brink of losing consciousness.

“That was not training,” the participant wrote. “It was assault, under the guise of training.”

The same lead instructor at the heart of the incident with Ferreira’s future son-in-law would “regularly toss people to the ground, kick their legs out from underneath them and warn them, ‘Your head should be on a swivel,’” the emailer reported.

The instructor would use recruits for violent demonstrations of defensive tactics, leaving them with wrist and ankle sprains that they were too fearful to report, lest they be terminated from the academy, she recounted. Such fears may not be unfounded.

Lawyers Weekly spoke to Dorchester attorney Artemisa L. Monteiro and a client of hers, a former court officer recruit who asked that her name not be used. A classmate directed a lewd comment at Monteiro’s client, a woman of color, as she waited in a classroom for the fourth week of her training to begin. Other recruits erupted in laughter, which prompted the mortified client to leave the room. But when the client reported the incident to the leaders of the academy, not only was nothing done, two days later she was terminated from the academy for allegedly failing a test.

Meanwhile, the perpetrator eventually became a trainer himself. Monteiro suggests that her client and others who were unfairly driven out of the academy need to be “made whole” for having been deprived of the benefits of a career as court officers.

“More importantly, [the Trial Court] needs to terminate this culture of discrimination, favoritism and abuse,” she says. Ferreira’s airing of the issue quickly drew an official response as well. In a May 14 memo to staff, Trial Court Security Director Jeffrey P. Morrow noted that Ferreira had raised allegations that new officers at the training academy had been subjected to “assaultive, demeaning and hazing behavior.”

“I have discussed this matter with the department leaders who administer the academy and they have assured me that such behavior did not, and does not, occur at the training academy,” Morrow wrote.

Nonetheless, Morrow said he endorsed a request made by the National Association of Government Employees to conduct an “impartial and independent” investigation to preserve the reputation and credibility of the training academy.

In a subsequent memo dated July 23, Morrow reported that the Trial Court had retained the services of a group consisting of former U.S. Marshal Nancy McGillivray, former Essex County District Attorney Kevin M. Burke and Elin H. Graydon, former chief of the Appellate Division in the Essex County DA’s Office, to conduct the investigation.

McGillivray and Burke led a similar investigation into events in the aftermath of the arrest of Alli Bibaud, daughter of Dudley District Court Judge Timothy M. Bibaud, ultimately issuing a report on allegations that then-State Police Superintendent Col. Richard McKeon had forced two troopers to remove from their reports embarrassing information to protect the judge and his daughter.

Ferreira says he has “full confidence” in the investigators, with whom he met for over two hours in July.

But he and at least one colleague are uneasy that Morrow is on record presupposing their conclusions.

“Is that any way to start an investigation?” Councilor Terrence W. Kennedy asked U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman, who was appearing before the Governor’s Council on May 19 to testify in support of the nomination of Andrew J. Abdella to the Worcester District Court bench.

“I can see those disclaimers being used in some lawyer’s opening statement one day,” Hillman replied.

That the Trial Court is “going to find itself on the back end of a serious [civil rights] lawsuit” is just one of his concerns, Councilor Robert L. Jubinville said at the Aug. 4 hearing for Appeals Court nominee Rachel E. Hershfang. “When you produce people out of that kind of academy, you are producing people that are going to be aggressive, physical and not the kind of people that we want greeting the citizens of the commonwealth when they come [into the courthouse], under great pressure sometimes,” Jubinville said.

He suggested that the academy “should be closed immediately.” Donahue says the investigation is expected to be complete by early November and that no decision had been made on whether the report will be made public.

Ferreira, for one, believes the report should get a full airing, and then-Appeals Court nominee Walsh agreed.

Absolutely; we need transparency,” she said.

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