Report: Pittsfield Officer Used Excessive Force, Lied About Incident
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — An internal affairs report contends that Pittsfield Police Officer Michael McHugh attempted to cover up an assault committed by a friend.
McHugh had not-guilty pleas entered on his behalf on single counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, assault and battery, misleading a police officer or other person, and being a public employee making a false report on July 12.
His co-defendant is Jason LaBelle, 37, who had not-guilty pleas entered on his behalf on Monday on single counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, assault and battery, falsely reporting a crime, misleading a judge, and misleading a clerk.
The pair is accused of assaulting a 54-year-old man in Pittsfield on July 4, 2016. The victim in the assault was arrested by McHugh that night on counts of operating under the influence, disturbing the peace, and possession of an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle.
The police internal investigation report says the arrest report had false information and that LeBelle was allegedly allowed to kick the man, which was left out of the report. McHugh is also accused of drinking at the time of the incident, which is against police conduct regulations.
McHugh, who has worked for the department for 18 years, was off duty at the time. In his report, he claims LaBelle, whom he described as a friend, had contacted him shortly before 9:30 p.m. that night claiming the 54-year-old was "stalking his house" and was likely intoxicated. LaBelle then went to McHugh's house.
McHugh said the pair drove around the neighborhood looking for the man's vehicle and eventually found it in a driveway of a neighbor. McHugh said he approached the vehicle, identifying himself as an officer, and the man refused to get out of the vehicle. He said the man appeared to be reaching for something, which he felt could be a weapon.
"I had to pry his hands off of the steering wheel and eventually strike him in the midsection two or three times with my left knee in order for him to let go. Once I had his hands free, I pulled him from the vehicle and ground stabilized him, face down, on the ground," he wrote.
McHugh said he searched the vehicle and found empty beer bottles. He contacted a police sergeant and asked for patrol officers to be sent. McHugh said he then went to knock on the door of the owner of the home whose driveway the incident was occurring when he heard LaBelle and the victim yelling at one another.
McHugh said he did not see [LaBelle] get "within arm's reach" of the victim. The internal investigation report, however, contends that was not true.
"McHugh denies that [redacted] was ever near [the victim] during the arrest. However, during McHugh's recorded call to the station [redacted] can be heard in the background and [the victim] can be heard groaning and stating [redacted]," the internal investigation report reads.
"It is noteworthy that in his arrest report Ofc. McHugh wrote 'I never witnessed [redacted] get within arm's reach of [the victim].' At the time no complaint had been filed by [the victim]. There was no legitimate reason for McHugh to make this assertion."
A grand jury found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that LaBelle was allowed to approach the victim and kick him several times.
The internal affairs report says those involved had "fabricated" the story of how the victim received his injuries. The injuries were apparently reported as being related to an earlier incident in which the victim is accused of swinging at someone, whose name was redacted in the report. But the investigation found that did not happen.
"Based on video evidence and interviews it was clearly determined that the early encounter in [redacted] driveway did not occur. It is unknown whose decision it was to bring forth this story, however, it is clear that Ofc. McHugh would stand to benefit from its use as reason for the severe injuries that [the victim] suffered," the internal investigation report reads.
The report continues to say the victim hadn't reported the encounter leading to the injuries and that the victim "certainly would have reported that and attempted to bring additional charges for it."
Based on interviews with witnesses, police say the story did not unfold the way McHugh described and that the officer had used excessive force. Further, the report found McHugh in violation of department rules and regulations of conduct unbecoming an officer, use of official position, truthfulness, duty status, cooperation with investigations, criminal conduct and falsifying records.
McHugh apparently admitted to other officers that he had "four beers" prior to the incident. The department's rules say "off-duty officers shall not consume alcoholic beverages while carrying a department issued firearm, nor shall they carry a firearm while under the influence of prescription medicine."
"Of his own admission, Ofc. McHugh had been drinking prior to the event. Ofc. McHugh decided to take possession of his duty weapon, activate himself as a police officer, and take action regarding a neighborhood disturbance. Ofc. McHugh had ample opportunity to step back and call the station to report the activities of [the victim]," the internal investigation report reads. "Instead he acted on impulse, encountering [the victim], and then forcefully removing him from the truck."
The victim brought forth the complaint on Aug. 5, 2016, looking for charges against McHugh and LaBelle. An investigation began by Lt. Michael Winston and Lt. Jeffrey Bradford and, on Sept. 11, 2016, the investigators determined that the arrest report was questionable. A few days before that, Chief Michael Wynn authorized a hold on the internal affairs investigation and proceeded with a criminal investigation.
Lt. Mark Trapani and Lt. Michael Grady launched the criminal investigation. That led to a grand jury indictment of both LaBelle and McHugh. During that investigation, the internal affairs report states that McHugh was untruthful during two interviews with the detective bureau and provided limited information about cell phone calls he was being questioned about.
McHugh has been on paid administrative leave since August 2016, when the internal affairs investigation began, pending the outcome of the Civil Service process.
"Whenever the Pittsfield Police Department becomes aware of alleged misconduct by any of our members, we take those allegations very seriously. Complete and thorough investigations are conducted and when warranted, referrals are made to the appropriate criminal justice partners. Service as a police officer requires a high degree of public trust, and police officers, justifiably, are held to a higher standard," Chief Wynn had written in a prepared statement about the investigation two weeks ago.
McHugh has been involved in other off-duty incidents in the past. In 2009, he was knocked unconscious following a brawl outside of a city bar and was stabbed in 2011 following an altercation relating to a traffic issue.