Backroom deal-making in City Council

By | November 19, 2020

There’s considerable context to New Bedford City Council‘s decision to offer up a “Blue Lives” resolution at precisely the moment that City residents needed reassurances that Black Lives really do matter.

On May 25, 2020 George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer triggered protests all over the country. In New Bedford, where the memory of police murders of Malcolm Gracia and Eric Aguiar were fresh, Mayor Jon Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor, appointed a Use of Force Commission on June 15, 2020 and put it in the hands of City Councilor Brian Gomes, a law and order zealot who supported chain gangs in the late 90’s. Both Mitchell’s Commission, and his choice of Gomes to lead it, drew howls of protest from citizen groups who foresaw that neither Michell nor Gomes were likely to act in good faith.

On July 7, 2020 the NAACP New Bedford president gave New Bedford and county officials a list of demands for protecting communities of color, and BREATHE! and other citizen groups were out in the streets demanding changes in policing. But as far as Mitchell and the Council were concerned, they had created their “study” — and that would be the end of it. Behind the scenes the Council was actually moving — not to reform the police — but to shield it from public accountability.

On August 20, 2020 New Bedford City Council President Joe Lopes requested that

“a member of the Mitchell Administration, the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, the EMS Director, the New Bedford Police Union and the New Bedford Fire Union meet with the members of the Committee on Public Safety and Neighborhoods to discuss the implementation and protection of Qualified Immunity language for the members of the Police Department, the Fire Department, and the Emergency Medical Service.”

The motion carried and was referred to the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Neighborhoods. On October 14, 2020 the committee met to discuss LED street lights, crosswalks, and vandalization at pocket parks. The Council had also invited New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro to consider

“the implementation of using drones to monitor high crime neighborhoods for surveillance across the City, adding another tool in fighting crime; and further requesting, that the drones be used for surveillance and security purposes when the City is holding major events, along with monitoring the City as a whole.”

At this meeting the Council revisited a 2018 request to Mayor Jon Mitchell and then- School Superintendent Pia Durkin to install

“security in all schools throughout the City, which includes panic buttons, cameras, and evacuation plan; and further, consider hiring armed guards possibly using former retirees from the Police Department and/or Veterans; furthermore, that the School Department install a hotline within the school system for students to report unusual activity, threats or even comments about guns or anything that threaten [sic] the wellbeing and safety of all faculty and students, titlle it ‘YOU HEAR IT, YOU SEE IT, YOU REPORT IT, TOGETHER WE MAKE OUR SCHOOLS SAFE.'”

But the highlight of the October 14th committee meeting was to follow through on the August 20 motion on Qualified Immunity. Lopes moved, seconded by Councilor Brad Markey, that the Council write a letter to the State delegation (Rep. Tony Cabral and Sen. Mark Montigny) “voicing the Council’s position against the proposed Qualified Immunity Proposition” in the Police Accountability legislation still languishing in the State House. According to minutes of the October 14th meeting filed by Clerk of Committees Denis Lawrence, Jr.:

“Councillor Lopes asked Police Chief Cordeiro how the current legislation at the State Capital, as it relates to Qualified Immunity, would affect the local police force. He was told if passed, this would cause a problem with the city along with other cities of the same size in Massachusetts. It may end up preventing the police force from protecting the very people they are trying to protect. Neighborhoods that are struggling will continue to struggle if not more so. A police officer will now be hesitant to be proactive if their decisions to act can be used against them. [Cordeiro] believes that the people who should know about the possible problems with Qualified Immunity do not know about it at all. Councillor Lopes expressed his concern for the future quality of police officers this would attract when the department looks to recruit officers; the Chief agreed. The Chief explained that currently the department is operating below their budget and does not have full complement of officers. He predicts an exodus of officers from cities to better communities. The Chief suggested that the Council and other entities flood the State Legislature with calls against the Qualified Immunity proposal. Councillor Lopes expressed his concern of when an Officer uses Narcan to revive a person from an overdose that they can be held liable. The Chief agreed that this could be an issue if passed.”

On September 21, 2020 the 60-Day Use of Force Commission report was released. There were no surprises. Instead of oversight, police would receive more taxpayer-funded “training.” But the mayor’s primary goal had been achieved in those 60 days — to blunt public anger at the police. On September 24, 2020, reading political winds that seemed to be in their favor, Mitchell and Cordeiro backed out of a community discussion on police accountability sponsored by United Interfaith Action.

The Qualified Immunity motion did not result from a community conversation, but was the product of closed discussions involving the Mayor’s office, the Police Department, Police, Fire, and EMS unions, Lopes, Gomes, Markey and others on the Council. No troublesome citizens were invited into the backroom. Gomes rushed to announce the motion in an October 22, 2020 statement to the same Councillors who had voted for it. The list of recipients who would soon receive copies was far more important.

On October 26, 2020 the actual letter was supposedly sent to Tony Cabral and Mark Montigny. On that same date Gomes scheduled a Zoom-based Use of Force Commission hearing, which he said would record public questions regarding the New Bedford Police Department’s Use of Force Policy, but at the poorly-run Zoom meeting Gomes ruled out answering any questions related to police accountability in general.

On November 13, 2020 WBSM’s Chris McCarthy wrote about the Council’s letter, incorrectly characterizing it as “unanimous” when at least one Councillor was not present, and the New Bedford Police Union celebrated McCarthy’s op-ed on Facebook.

As of November 14, 2020 at least one of the the intended recipients, Rep. Tony Cabral, still had not seen the letter to him that WBSM, the Police Union, and the Standard Times had all received. And Sen. Mark Montigny, when asked for comment by the Standard Times, had none.

These back-room machinations are a slap in the face to New Bedford residents, community groups, and the religious community that had all attempted to engage in good faith with Mitchell and the City Council on matters of police accountability.

The letter Lopes and the Council sent to SouthCoast legislators demonstrates once again that, rather than representing the views of New Bedford’s citizens, the Mayor and Council have little regard for them. When the Mayor, the PD, police and fire unions, and much of the City Council (half of whom are not accountable to any specific ward) begin doing backroom political favors for the police — locking the public out of the discussion in the process — voters ought to take notice.

There is no reason that police, who claim to need Qualified Immunity because they make split-second, life-and-death decisions, need it any more than surgeons or air traffic controllers. Accountability to the public by both police and public officials is at stake here, and it’s an unresolved issue that will continue to hound the Mayor and his police-friendly Council.

Just as Qualified Immunity confers special rights on police that no other citizen enjoys, the Mayor and Council have compounded the injustice by permitting a privileged police voice to be the only one to represent the city on Qualified Immunity.