Arlington’s attempt to mitigate a police department controversy causes more distress for some concerned residents
“It’s time we forget about ‘restraint,’ ‘measured responses,’ ‘procedural justice,’ ‘de-escalation,’ ‘stigma-reduction,’ and other feel-good BS … Let’s meet violence with violence and get the job done.”
These words weren’t tweeted by a random Twitter troll. Rather, they were published by a lieutenant at the Arlington Police Department last October as part of a series of columns published in the Sentinel, an official statewide trade publication of the Massachusetts Police Association.
And there was more.
The lieutenant also wrote, “How about that nut who decided to ruin the Fourth of July in NYC by climbing up the Statue of Liberty? … I know I’m not the only one who was rooting for her to fall … and land on [activist NFL quarterback Colin] Kaepernick.”
It didn’t end there: “Somerville Mayor and Progressive hero Joe Curtatone came out yesterday to announce Columbus Day will now be known as Indigenous People’s Day. What a farce! Some people will say anything to please the Antifa, BLM, American-hater crowd.”
And not least of all: “… a ‘caravan’ of illegals is traveling up through Mexico to demand all the rights of US citizens when they get here … Back on December 7th, 1941, a caravan of Japanese planes tried this in Hawaii. We shot at them.”
Since these articles were printed in a statewide publication, their reach extended beyond Arlington’s borders. As a result of his words, Lieutenant Richard (Rick) Pedrini—whose history with the department includes documented allegations of abusive behavior—was put on paid leave by the APD for five months, after claiming his columns were “tongue-in-cheek political satire,” according to WBUR. In February, the town announced it would have him enter a so-called restorative justice program, a decision that was seemingly made without any attempt to consult the groups directly targeted by his rhetoric.
In late March, the news hit that Pedrini completed the whirlwind restoration process and would be returning to the force with some disciplinary measures in place, though the nature of said measures is unclear. In May, Pedrini, who is white, issued a public apology that did not acknowledge the explicitly racist content of his writing. Nor did he address their ableist nature, as stigma reduction programs are often geared toward greater acceptance and understanding of those with substance abuse disorders, mental illness, or developmental disabilities. While the reinstated lieutenant has a right to free speech, it seems reasonable to expect that a police department leader should be held to a higher standard than a civilian—given that his job is to protect and serve all residents.
Yet in 2017, another one of Pedrini’s Sentinel columns took aim at Black Lives Matter, undocumented immigrants, and those with substance abuse disorders and their supporters. Specifically, he referred to the “advocates for the criminal class [who] continue to speak up for the poor ‘non-violent’ drug offenders rotting in the bowels of the Commonwealth’s correctional facilities,” as well as the “Sanctuary town-types” who want more protections for immigrant residents in Massachusetts from ICE.
Arlington prides itself on being a supposed sanctuary town, though the Trust Act resolution passed by its Town Meeting in 2017 is technically nonbinding, which means it doesn’t offer undocumented immigrants any genuine legal protections. Also relevant is that the APD has an opioid outreach program.
“[Pedrini’s] hostility towards stigma reduction is particularly worrying, because it’s stigma that we think is so often responsible for the deaths of people with disabilities,” Colin Killick, deputy director of the Disability Policy Consortium (DPC), wrote to DigBoston in an email.
Killick recently authored an editorial for the weekly DPC newsletter on Pedrini and the larger issue of police violence toward people with disabilities in Massachusetts.
“[It’s] frightening to see an officer of the law actively calling for violence and then going back to work,” Killick noted.
Restorative justice is a system that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the larger community. A core tenet of restorative justice is prioritizing the needs of those most harmed by a given offense in order to help with their healing. So, the Pedrini case has been a tough pill to swallow for those of us who are squarely within the demographics the lieutenant addressed in his articles, as well as those who have a more intimate understanding of police violence—including me.
Though I currently live in Arlington, I am from a neighborhood in New York City where police brutality was and is still commonplace, and where several of my closest family members, who suffered from mental illness and addiction, have been assaulted by police.
I was present at an Arlington Human Rights Commission meeting in March, at which time I witnessed a small group of protesters peacefully picket outside the meeting hall. The demonstrators also joined the HRC meeting in order to demand Pedrini’s termination and to ask for the commission to withdraw from his reinstatement process (full disclosure: My partner participated in the protest, and I added my support to their request at the meeting). The AHRC ultimately voted to withdraw from the process as a result but stopped short of calling for Pedrini’s resignation.
“The [HRC] is getting the privilege of removing their name from this whole thing while also having helped move it forward,” said Ramy Abdel-Azim, an Arlington resident and member of Socialist Alternative who helped organize the protest. “Short of them calling for Pedrini to be fired, I have no faith in the organization.”
Abdel-Azim, who is Muslim American, elaborated that he is concerned about the safety and well-being of himself and his family in the town as a result of Pedrini’s reinstatement. Others who support Pedrini’s termination said they would not comment on the record due to fear of police profiling.
Less than a week after the aforementioned HRC meeting, an Arlington Select Board member informed me that some of the human rights commissioners were requesting “police protection” as a result of the protest—even though the protesters, some of the most vocal of whom were people of color, did not issue any threats.
In the time since, subsequent April and May HRC meetings had police present at them, while the commission pushed its public comment section of the meetings to the very end, close to 10 pm, and imposed strict time limits on community input.
The Arlington HRC did not respond to requests for comment.
Massachusetts is often considered a bastion of progressive thought and social justice, as we were the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and adopt expanded universal health care coverage, among other milestones. But when it comes to racial and ethnic tolerance, there are blind spots.
In 2016, the FBI reported that our state led the nation in hate crimes, and our rates have risen since then. Of the lot, Arlington ranked number two in the state for hate crimes of those municipalities in the Commonwealth that kept track. The disparities are everywhere; in the Boston metro region, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, African Americans have a median net worth of $8, while the median net worth of whites in the area is $247,000.
As far as policing in the Bay State goes, the Prison Policy Initiative found that Hispanic and African American individuals are vastly overrepresented in our jails and prisons. While feel-good stories about community policing in Greater Boston are common in the mainstream media, there is a different narrative beneath the surface. Though African Americans make up only 22% of Boston proper’s population, they accounted for 66% of marijuana possession cases from 2000 through 2018.
Arlington appears to be no exception. Last September, three young African American men were arrested in the town for possession of marijuana and intent to distribute. According to police reports pulled for this article, the three men were detained at gunpoint by members of the APD and frisked, while the car they were driving and their personal possessions were searched. APD Sergeant Brian Fennelly referred to the men as “violent criminals” during a televised press conference, claiming that an unidentified witness reported seeing one of the suspects carrying a firearm. No firearm was found.
On the legislative level, restorative justice was largely intended for young people of color who get caught in the crosshairs of the drug war, as opposed to as a mechanism for cops who use hate speech to keep their jobs.
“I’ve never allowed restorative justice to be one of our solutions to situations [regarding police misconduct],” said Sophia Hall, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights. As an example of a situation in which she believes restorative justice is helpful, Hall points to students of color who often face higher suspension rates than their white counterparts. (Arlington is particularly problematic in that area; though black and Hispanic students only comprise less than 5% of the student body, they account for a quarter of the high school and approximately one-third of suspensions at the middle school level).
Hall, who often works on police misconduct cases, said she’d be concerned that groups attempting to apply restorative justice to a white cop who engaged in hate speech may not be diverse or well-versed enough in detecting and addressing racial biases to be effective.
“I’d want a trainer I know and trust who is culturally competent with re-educating police officers,“ Hall said.
Roxbury-based community organizer Jamarhl Crawford attended Lexington Christian Academy for high school in the 1990s. He said he had to pass through Arlington to get there every morning and recalls being stopped and harassed by the APD on numerous occasions. Crawford raises a point similar to Hall’s.
“It wasn’t a black consulting group [executing the restorative justice], so the process itself is racist,” Crawford said. “It was implemented by a white nonprofit that certainly does not have the authority to be the arbiters on anything related to race.”
The nonprofit that was contracted to offer Pedrini “restorative justice”—Communities for Restorative Justice, or C4RJ—does not track demographic data for the offenders or victims it has served over a decade. The organization receives almost all of its referrals for cases from either the District Attorney’s Office of Middlesex County, or police departments with which they partner—several of which are founding members and funders of C4RJ. APD Chief Fred Ryan was a C4RJ board member from 2015 until only a few months ago, following his retirement from the APD shortly after Pedrini was suspended.
Research strongly suggests that police departments often have well-documented racial biases. One study by Stanford University in 2017 found that cops treat black citizens with less respect than whites, while an analysis of nationwide hospital data concluded: “Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics had higher stop/arrest rates [by police]…than white non-Hispanics and Asians.”
C4RJ did not respond to inquiries for this article. So in order to see if the nonprofit is undertaking measures to ensure against discrimination in its process, I attended a forum on restorative justice in March at the Watertown Public Library, where a representative from C4RJ participated in a panel discussion.
Asked about the demographics served by C4RJ, the representative said they mainly work with white offenders because Middlesex County is predominantly white. A public records request with the Middlesex County DA’s office revealed that out of 94 cases referred for restorative justice since 2015, only seven were for offenders who self-identified as black.
In Arlington, town officials have claimed that one reason they opted to use so-called restorative justice in the Pedrini case is because of how hard it can be to fire a cop in the Commonwealth. It is true that the process can be extremely difficult, though in recent years some municipalities in Massachusetts have succeeded in firing officers who engaged in racist rhetoric, and those decisions were upheld in arbitration.
The Town of Arlington and the APD have also noted that an internal investigation was conducted, concluding that Pedrini had no history of excessive force. In an attempt to verify those claims for this article, I filed a public records request that yielded other allegations and complaints against Pedrini since 2000. Much of the text was redacted, but what’s visible shows that Pedrini had a restraining order placed on him in 2002. One complainant filed suit against the town of Arlington, accusing town officials of being “aware that Pedrini’s gun had been taken away and that he was the subject of several lawsuits alleging violent interactions.” On July 11, 2002, a Middlesex Superior Court clerk issued a notice: “The defendant Sgt. Richard Pedrini is to have no contact with the Plaintiff … either directly or indirectly and is restrained and enjoined from coming within 200 yards.”
Such actions seem to be in line with APD behavior over the past several decades. In the late 1990s, an off-duty Arlington cop was caught peeping outside the home of a local resident and was also accused of confiscating marijuana for himself and filing a false stolen car report. Two other APD officers covered up the incident. One of those officers who participated in the coverup, Dan J. Kelly, pulled the name tag off the gym bag of the accused that held the confiscated marijuana, filed an incomplete report, and failed to inform state police about what he knew regarding the suspect. At the hearing, Kelly told prosecutors that some APD officers routinely committed procedural violations.
Kelly was temporarily suspended but was hired back on and continues to serve in the APD. He has since been promoted to sergeant and at one point served as president of the Arlington police union.
In Pedrini’s case, town officials are reportedly preparing to return his service weapon to him. When he returns to duty, many residents, including me, are asking: How do we know for sure he won’t harm those he advocated violence against?
Whether or not Pedrini or other members of the APD act on his rhetoric, there may be other risks. Studies show that creating more tolerance for hateful and biased speech is linked to an overall increase in violence. Days after Arlington’s plan to reinstate Pedrini was announced, Islamophobic graffiti was discovered at a local park, while two anti-Semitic hate crimes were committed in town within weeks of him taking up desk duty.
“Despite clear evidence of hate speech, the town management has chosen to completely absolve the officer by a process that remains opaque,” said an Arlington resident and person of color who asked that his real name not be used. “I am very concerned … that a person who has incited hate has been deemed more important than the people who are affected by his words.”
“I hope that the town reconsiders their decision to reinstate the officer, and what has happened remains under review,” he added. “All other town departments [should] review their policies to prevent such issues from reoccurring.”
Ed note: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to APD Sergeant Brian Fennelly as Jim Feeney. We regret the error, and the change has been made above.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Help fund more critical reporting like this by visiting givetobinj.org.
Laura has been featured in Politico, the Washington Post, Quartz, Vice, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, and other publications. She covers housing and healthcare for BINJ.