Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Police reform in Massachusetts

Time to rein in the police and support Chairman Costello’s reform efforts
by Kevin John Sowyrda Contributor
Thursday Feb 26, 2009

First in a new series regarding police culture in the Commonwealth.

So where’s the outrage? In a state which prides itself as the "Athens of America," not just for cultural reasons but because we claim to cherish civil liberties, barely an eyelid is raised when the cops toss a prominent talk show host in jail because a computer screen in a police cruiser says the subject didn’t pay a lousy car insurance bill in a southern state from which he moved years ago. How can this lackadaisical attitude toward police excess be so prevalent in the Massachusetts birthed by Sam Adams and governed by a Democratic majority which tells us that the eight years of George Bush and the Patriot Act are dead and buried and constitutional rights are back in fashion?

But I guess I missed the fashion show. Police powers in Massachusetts are completely out of control and each of us has our own, particular horror story to tell about an outrageous cop who seems poised to go postal or whose grasp of the truth is lose at best. And this dilemma is particularly acute given my observation that our elected officials fear the unions representing the constabulary forces more than they respect the voters. Thus, even if conservative gabber Michael Graham is not your cup of tea, you should not find it appetizing that a police officer can throw him or you in jail because the Intel Chips running the registry of motor vehicles in another jurisdiction revoke your driver’s license for a reason of minutia.

To be blunt, I’m not exactly a Michael Graham fan myself. It’s in this very column that I once took the local talk master to the wood shed for his lame attempt at an interview with Congressman Barney Frank. But that’s not the point. Deciding what kind of a state we want to live in, both as progressives and conservatives, is the issue in need of a healthy and open debate; and Graham, or for that matter any citizen of this Commonwealth, being handcuffed and thrown into jail for a simplistic, bureaucratic issue is a situation worthy of debate and due consideration.

Graham was more whimsical than contrite when he recently told his audience that he managed to make his 9:00 a.m. gab shift on WTKK FM only after having suffered undue humiliation in Framingham, where police detained him for what they allege was a minor moving violation. After the perfunctory plate and registration check at the scene, officials told Graham his license had been suspended and that they would have to handcuff and jail him.

An ad hominem of hieroglyphics from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, issued to the press in the aftermath of this ludicrous police action, can best be deciphered to mean that the Confederacy rises again. Virginia apparently declares that Graham didn’t pay his car insurance there, and, thanks to interstate cooperation agreements, Massachusetts was all too happy to suspend Mr. Graham’s license here.

(Memo to Registrar Kaprielian - if a member of your family were driving, unbeknownst to him or her, with a license suspended for the same trite reason, would you want him or her thrown in the clink?)

In any event, Graham has already appeared in court and will seek a jury trial on the charges that he was driving with a suspended license. He says he’ll call the registrar as a witness. I hope he does.

The entire affair is almost surreal, and we all know that incidents like these are repeated every day of the week in Massachusetts. I mean, forget Bernie Madoff sipping Chablis in his swank, Manhattan penthouse after bilking enough cash from unsuspecting souls to fill a U-Haul truck. Apparently the real menaces to society are souls like Michael Graham, whose license was suspended because another state is gravely concerned about a pocket full of cash he may owe the auto insurance syndicate.

"We see this all the time," said Chris Ott, communications manager for the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Massachusetts. "We see people getting arrested and hauled off to jail for non-criminal offenses. People are getting arrested all the time for all that drama for something that is legally in the same category as a parking ticket. So yes, if all he [Graham] did was not pay his insurance in Virginia that doesn’t sound like he’s a danger to anyone, and so this does sound unusual."

But the roadblocks to change will be hard to navigate. After all, any politician who takes on police powers will not only incur the wrath of the potent and well-funded public safety unions but a fair share of voters as well. Conservatives are pro-police by nature and liberals are increasingly afraid to be labeled as weak on crime, which leads to a blind eye or two being turned in the direction of a few civil liberties being tossed here and maybe a few others being tossed over there.

Let’s be blunt; the pervasive attitude in this state is that police officers are free to do basically what they please, and this attitude can be proven by visual observation on any day of the week.

But be careful before you whip out your cell phone and videotape what you see going wrong. On Sept. 27, 2008, Mark Hynes of Charlestown was not enjoying his own experience with the Boston Police and was then arrested for videotaping the local cops without their permission. There is apparently a law prohibiting videotaping without the permission of both parties; a law that should be canned so that taxpayers can absolutely videotape police actions, thus insuring proper conduct. I’d even give tax incentives for the action.

And though the scales of justice weigh heavily in favor of the blue wall, there’s one member of the state legislature fighting for the change we need.

The governor’s deputy press secretary Kimberly Haberlin declined any comment on this subject. But the Chairman of the House Committee on Public Safety, Michael A. Costello (D-Newburyport), has been speaking out and providing a needed leadership role. Costello said arresting citizens for an offense like Graham’s is not jurisprudent and should be corrected in the so-called CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] reform legislation filed by the governor on January 11.

"Unless there’s a suspension for an egregious behavior such as operating under the influence it [driving with a suspended license] should not be an arrestable offense," said Costello, a former assistant district attorney in Essex County and now a practicing defense attorney. "It’s mind-boggling to think that an otherwise law-abiding citizen can be pulled out of their car, be arrested and jailed; to find out it’s a technicality or an out-of-state insurance issue. But that’s what happens. At a minimum we should look at whether or not that should be an arrestable offense."

Governor Patrick should jump on board and support Chairman Costello’s efforts to utilize the CORI bill as a vehicle for police reforms which will enhance the rights of citizens and put the brakes on police being able to arrest citizens for offenses which simply do not rise to the level of an incarceration event.

Kevin John Sowrdya is a political columnist who writes for South End News and Bay Windows, as well as other publications. He can be reached at

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