State faults officers’ use of force against ICE detainees

BOSTON (AP) — Officers at a Dartmouth detention center used excessive force when they deployed pepper spray, police dogs and a flash bang device against inmates who refused to be tested for COVID-19, according to a state report released Tuesday.

In a scathing report, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office determined that the Bristol County sheriff’s office violated the civil rights of federal immigration detainees after some became destructive in a May altercation.

The report acknowledged that some inmates had thrown plastic chairs at officers and damaged property, but it says the scene had been calm for an hour when a sheriff’s team entered and used force.

Attorney General Maura Healey urged the Department of Homeland Security to terminate its contract with the sheriff’s office and threatened to sue the sheriff’s office if it fails to implement changes.

“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,” Healey said in a statement.

The sheriff’s office said it stands by its response and is awaiting results of a “truly independent investigation” by federal immigration officials. It called Healey’s report a “politically motivated stunt” meant to demonize law enforcement officers.

The report “is littered with baseless allegations and assumptions, and was clearly written and released to advance her long-documented anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant political agenda,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

A federal immigration official previously applauded the handling of the case, saying the sheriff’s office “responded rapidly and professionally to de-escalate a volatile situation, limiting injuries and further damage to the facility and restoring order.”

Healey’s investigation focused on a May 1 altercation involving 25 inmates at a wing reserved for detainees being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After 10 showed symptoms of COVID-19, officers sought to remove them from the wing and isolate them until they tested negative for the virus.

Some inmates refused to leave the bunkroom amid concerns they would be exposed to the virus at the center’s medical unit, investigators found. Some others spoke little English and did not understand what was happening.

The situation erupted when a struggle broke out between the sheriff and an inmate who was using a nearby phone to call his attorney. Some of the inmates and several officers rushed together and an altercation broke out, investigators said.

After an officer used pepper spray on the crowd, the officers fled the room and two or three inmates threw chairs at them. Several detainees started damaging the unit, breaking walls, appliances and sinks, and using tables and mattresses to barricade doors.

As a team of officers prepared to enter an hour later, the center’s superintendent told them that inmates had makeshift weapons and that all 25 were rioting, according to the report. Investigators, however, challenged that account.

“Much of this information was demonstrably false or otherwise misleading, according to the evidence available,” the report said. During much of the intervening hour, camera footage showed the inmates walking, sitting or lying down, investigators said.

Around 7 p.m., 16 officers opened the door, threw a flash bang device into the unit and ordered all the inmates to the ground. Most detainees followed the order, the report says, but officers went on to fire 30 pepper ball rounds and ordered police dogs to issue “muzzle hits” on inmates who were already on the ground.

So much pepper was used that two inmates were taken to a hospital and a third needed emergency chest compressions, the report said.

“Perhaps most shocking, the detainee who required emergency chest compressions was not taken to the hospital for a medical evaluation or assessment, but was instead placed in solitary confinement,” according to the report.

Healey concluded that the response violated federal detention standards. She urged the Department of Homeland Security to sever ties with the sheriff’s office and transfer its immigration detainees to another facility.

She told the sheriff’s office to update its policies on use of force and to hire an external review of its policies, among more than a dozen recommendations. If changes aren’t made, her office wrote, “we reserve our right to pursue litigation.”

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