Sheriff used 'excessive force', violated civil rights, says AG

Dec 15, 2020

This story has been updated to include comments from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office.

Flashbangs, pepper bombs/spray, riot shields, and canines — all of these were used against federal ICE detainees in a show of "excessive force" by the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in a May 1 altercation that violated detainees' civil rights, according to a Dec. 15 report from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.

The altercation started at around 5:30 p.m. on May 1, when Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and several officers entered the ICE facility on Faunce Corner Road to speak with detainees about their refusal to get tested.

The sheriff spoke in English and did not provide translation or interpretation services for those who did not speak the language. 

Ten federal detainees had refused to consent to Covid testing and isolation due to fears they would be exposed to the virus in the quarantine units, the report stated. The quarantine units served the entire jail population, including individuals who had recently arrived from outside.

Although Hodgson said at a May 2 press conference that detainees caused damage to the facility, the investigation found that the protest was largely non-violent, although two plastic chairs were thrown at officers during the incident.

According to the report, officers responded with “excessive and disproportionate” force, including the use of “so much pepper spray...that two detainees were taken to the hospital with symptoms of respiratory distress.”

A third detainee required emergency chest compressions to be revived and many detainees reported breathing difficulties in the days and weeks following the altercation, the report noted.

“Our investigation revealed that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office violated the rights of detainees by using excessive force and by seriously risking their health and safety,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. 

“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.”

“We are particularly troubled by the BCSO’s unlawful use of canines, lack of attempt to de-escalate the situation or otherwise avoid further conflict, and failure to warn the detainees, including those who may not have understood verbal directives because of language barriers, before using substantial force against them,” Healey’s office noted in the report.

The findings also revealed that Hodgson and his staff violated their own internal policies and protocols around de-escalation and the use of canine units, although the report did note that the Sheriff’s Office “voluntarily produced several sources of evidence in connection with our investigation.”

As of a result, Healey recommended the jail adopt new procedures to avoid conflicts, develop training on cultural sensitivity and conduct an external audit of all institutional policies and procedures related to the use of force.

The AG also called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to terminate all contracts with the BCHOC "as expeditiously as possible."

In a statement from the Sheriff’s office, Hodgson claimed that the AG’s report was “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions” and that his staff reacted to the altercation “with the upmost professionalism.”

“We stand by the response to the incident, and look forward to the results of the truly independent investigation currently being worked on by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General,” the statement read.