Newly released public records raise serious questions about a state police “civil disturbance” training given to local law enforcement. A PowerPoint presentation released under the public records law includes slides depicting troopers assaulting a defenseless antiwar demonstrator, as well as a photoshopped image that ridiculed the body shape of a female Black Lives Matter protester.
Although state police officials were not sure how many times the presentation was used during trainings, it was delivered as recently as October 2016 to a group of local law enforcement by Commander Robert Leverone and Trooper Charles Luise. At the time of the training, both were assigned to the Public Order Platoon, a state police unit responsible for quelling riots and civil disturbances. For manning barricades and training others to do the same, both received generous compensation packages. According to a MassLive database, Leverone earned $179,408 in 2016 while Luise hauled in a little over $140,000.
In their introduction, Leverone and Luise state that the purpose of the training is to “review concepts, policies and tactics of civil unrest response, and prepare officers for the eventuality of deployment to such events.”
The presentation begins on a nostalgic note, with slides showing “riot duty” through the ages: the 1973 Walpole prison uprising, UMass clashes from the 2000s, and other incidents. One slide shows a collage of photos of the state police during the April 1970 Harvard Square Riot. In several pictures, a male protester is seen cowering, hands interlaced behind his head. Truncheon-wielding troopers loom over him. News outlets at the time reported that more than 300 people were injured in the melee, which began as a protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
In an email, state police spokesman Dave Procopio acknowledged that the photo “may show a trooper about to kick a protestor” and stated: “If that in fact was the action that followed, that was an inappropriate and unnecessary use of force.” Procopio went on to note that the photograph was more than 40 years old before adding: “We do not, in the current day and age, train troopers to utilize any such striking or kicking techniques against a non-combative person. Such action,” he continued, “would clearly not be tolerated today and the officer would be investigated and disciplined.”
The presentation also highlights state police action at more recent disturbances. There is a photo of what appears to be a topless protester from a 2003 demonstration with the United States Marine Corps logo digitally pasted over her chest, while special attention appears to have been paid to the way police broke up the January 2015 blockade of I-93 by Black Lives Matter protesters. Passive resistance by demonstrators, many of whom formed a human chain across the busy highway by locking themselves together and to buckets of concrete, resulted in a major traffic jam and 29 arrests. Getting a slide of its own is a photograph of one protester, Nicole Sullivan, digitally altered to show her arm locked to a bucket of fried chicken. A Google image search quickly revealed that the original picture was snapped by the Massachusetts State Police Media Relations team and showed Sullivan and another protester with their arms locked to a concrete container. In a statement, Procopio maintained that state police personnel “did not create that image through any type of photo editing software or any other means. It is our understanding that the altered photo has existed on the Internet—source/creator unknown to us—for some time.”
But the state police’s mea culpa rings hollow for Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “Protest is a fundamental right in the United States, protected by the First Amendment,” said Crockford, who directs the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty program. That the training module, Crockford added, included “what appears to be a fat-shaming joke about a Black Lives Matter protester is offensive and suggests officers don’t take freedom of speech seriously.”
State police spokesman Procopio confirmed that in response to this investigation, the doctored image of Sullivan will be “immediately removed from the PowerPoint.” “The altered image is unprofessional and inappropriate,” he wrote in an email, and its inclusion in the training was “not reflective of the values of the Department of State Police.”
For her part, Sullivan—a longtime activist in Greater Boston—said she was disappointed but “not surprised” to learn of her cameo role in the police training. Sullivan says she received threatening messages for weeks after the I-93 blockade, a harassment campaign she feels the state police could have done more to stop. “For them to use a hateful meme of me in what is supposedly training material is just terrifying,” Sullivan wrote. “It shows just how openly they condone harassment campaigns against anti-racist protesters.”
A records access officer with the state police initially claimed to have found no evidence that the training ever took place. However, training records released by the Springfield police department indicated that Sgt. Matthew Benoit, a member of the department’s SWAT team, attended the civil disturbance training in October 2016. Subsequent public records requests filed with Springfield uncovered the state police PowerPoint.
In 2016, the group Investigative Reporters and Editors awarded the Massachusetts State Police its annual Golden Padlock Award, recognizing the most secretive government agency in the United States.