METHUEN — City councilors critical of a recent use-of-force investigation say they’re unhappy about a lack of access to police body camera footage and other information about the incident that caused the probe.
Councilors say they have been vocal about wanting to see body cam footage, even before it was obtained last week by The Eagle-Tribune. Mayor Neil Perry said, however, that he did not receive any requests from the council for the footage.
The body cam footage shows what happened during the early morning hours of March 5, after Lt. Ronald Valliere pointed a gun at a driver who had his hands in the air and above the steering wheel during a traffic stop. Statements made on camera emphasize an earlier, gang-related shooting that had officers on high alert for a possible retaliatory attack.
Investigator David O’Laughlin was subsequently hired in June, when the incident became public knowledge through a cell phone video taken from the passenger's seat of the driver's car.
O'Lauhglin wrote in a final report that in exonerating Valliere, he relied on the body cam footage, the passenger’s recorded perspective, and interviews with police who were at the scene.
Councilors received O’Laughlin’s completed report at the end of June, according to Councilor Steve Saba. In his report, O’Laughlin said Valliere and other officers acted in line with the Police Department’s use-of-force policies, and that those polices are in line with state standards.
“I believe that there is a need for more clarity and revision in the MPD policy on Use of Force,” wrote, referring to the Methuen Police Department, “particularly pertaining to report writing and firearms.”
O'Laughlin did not say whether a report about the incident should have been filed, but an updated Methuen police policy dated June 24 now requires officers to “note justification for the use of force within a use of force report.”
Councilors continue to question whether a report should have been made by Valliere after he drew his gun.
Saba said the body camera footage was not provided to councilors as of Tuesday.
“As councilors, we should not have to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) anything,” said Saba. “When such sensitive information is going to be released, one would expect (the mayor and police officials) will say to the council ‘here is what we’re going to release to the press.’”
But, Saba said, “Unfortunately this has been pretty regular, in my opinion, that we have been blocked out of information. We have been put on a need-to-know basis.”
Several councilors — including Chairperson James McCarty, D.J. Beauregard and Mike Simard — remain focused on the lack of police documentation.
Simard, a Lawrence police officer, said “10/10 times I’m going to do a use-of-force report.”
“I know that the person recording me is going to put it on social media. A report should be automatic when you draw your weapon,” he said, noting there should be no exceptions.
McCarty elaborated, “The main issue here is Methuen Police rules and procedures require a report to be written when there’s use of force, and that isn’t what was done.”
“There’s favoritism,” he said.
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the situation during an upcoming forum hosted by the Public Safety Committee, according to Simard.
The goal is to have city officials, police representatives and the public gather to discuss the incident, the investigation and aftermath.
A date for the forum was not set as of Wednesday due to COVID-19 restrictions in place at City Hall.
“I’ve wanted this investigation since day one to go in favor of the Police Department and the city," said Simard, "because the last thing I want is any civil rights issues. However, I demand transparency.
“As the chair of the Public Safety Committee, I weighed in when I found out we would be using MPI (the organization that employs O’Laughlin),” he said. “When I asked who chose O’Laughlin, the mayor said (police Chief) Joe Solomon made the choice. And I have a big problem with that.”
The mayor said he has asked an auditor reviewing the Methuen Police Department to study two particular items: the use-of-force policy and whether it should be modified, and when a report should be generated after a weapon is drawn.
“These are still items that concern me,” he said.