What does an expanded police 'civil rights unit' mean to Randolph?

RANDOLPH – Good policing no longer equates to the most arrests made, Randolph police officers say.

"It's really not what it's about anymore," Detective Sgt. Jason Fisher said recently at the Randolph police station. "It's about solving problems."

The Randolph Police Department has announced an expansion of its "civil rights unit," a part of the department that handles reports of hate crimes and community outreach.

Commander Melissa Greener supervises the now three-person unit, and the team sat down to discuss what the expansion means, why it's needed and how the department aims to help the Randolph community.

Members of the Randolph Police Department civil rights unit, from left, Detective Christopher Jones, Commander Melisa Greener and Detective Sergeant Jason Fisher.
Members of the Randolph Police Department civil rights unit, from left, Detective Christopher Jones, Commander Melisa Greener and Detective Sergeant Jason Fisher.

What is a civil rights unit?

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued a recommendation in November 2018 that encouraged every law enforcement agency in the state to designate one officer as a "point person on hate crimes."

The civil rights officer is to be responsible not just for reviewing reports for possible hate crimes, but also engaging with the community as a liaison, the recommendation says.

Other directives include making data on reported hate crimes more transparent and accessible to the public, and having civil rights officers attend free training provided by the Municipal Police Training Council.

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Northeastern University criminology professor Jack McDevitt said the first three hate crime units in the nation were formed in the 1980s in Boston, Baltimore and New York City. At the time, there was debate on whether hate crimes even existed, he said.

Four decades later, the Randolph Police Department says it's trying to be proactive in engaging with the community.

Randolph Town Councilor Ken Clifton said the expansion represents a move in the right direction.

"People have fought, suffered and even died to ensure fairness, justice and civil rights,” he said. "That’s why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into being. Any civil rights unit or department must first of all fully understand the history, context and the purpose of such a movement."

Randolph civil rights unit expands

Randolph's "expansion" of its civil rights unit is still in its early stages after starting last summer, Greener said, but one of the big parts of its growth is the addition of two officers to the unit.

Now, Greener, Fisher and Detective Christopher Jones make up the unit. The three took an eight-hour course to become civil rights officers.

The expansion didn't come as a reaction to any particular incident or problem, Greener emphasized, but she said the department hopes to be more proactive in its approach to hate crimes and community outreach in general.

"I don't want to make it seem like, 'Oh, we have a bunch of civil rights issues within this town because it's a diverse community,'" Jones said. "It's just there as another resource for the community to either call us or we follow up with any type of bias, no matter how minimal it may be."

The Randolph Police Department recently expanded its civil rights unit.
The Randolph Police Department recently expanded its civil rights unit.

The department also hopes to partner with outside organizations in a way that more closely connects officers with the town's diverse population.

Nearly half of Randolph's residents identify as Black or African American, and another 13% of residents identify as Asian. Just over 3% identify as two or more races, census data shows.

"How this experiment works out will be crucial in determining how the community, particularly the community of color, sees the police department," Clifton said.

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Using "Community Enhancing Partnerships"

The police department says it plans to make use of Community Enhancing Partnerships, a strategy that includes more community outreach, making residents feel comfortable in their community and making people feel safe reporting concerns to the police.

This more holistic approach to policing is less about arrests and more about fixing problems, the officers in the civil rights unit explained. When Anthony Marag became police chief in April, his vision of community policing shifted the department's priorities, Greener said.

"He's given all of us ... the trust and the foresight to say, 'Hey, go out there, solve problems, make friends, build relationships,'" Greener said.

Randolph Police Cmdr. Melissa Greener listens as members of the Randolph Police hate crime unit speak on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Randolph Police Cmdr. Melissa Greener listens as members of the Randolph Police hate crime unit speak on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.

The new game plan breaks Randolph down into five districts with five officers known as "CEPs," who help put on events for their district a few times a year.

These kinds of relationships are crucial to connecting people to the police, said McDevitt, who is also the director of Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice.

McDevitt, who used to work with the Washington, D.C., police, said that department assigned hate crime officers as liaisons to different potential victim groups. So one officer, for example, may be the liaison for the LGBTQ+ community. That officer would spend time with leaders in that community, talk with them and make their faces known.

When people want to report crimes, sometimes facing the monolith of the police can be difficult, McDevitt said, but reporting crimes to an officer you know can be less intimidating.

"That's huge," McDevitt said. "Those relationships pay huge dividends."

The Randolph department collaborated with St. Mary's Church to hold a Trunk or Treat Halloween event and in early October it hosted "Coffee with a Cop" at St. Bernadette Church, where officers and residents could talk over hot drinks.

Reluctant to report hate crimes

Out of a population of about 32,000 people, Randolph police made 205 arrests in 2020, state data shows. That's 20% fewer than in 2019.

In 2019, just one hate crime was reported in town, the state's annual hate crimes report said.

But officially reported figures can be deceiving.

McDevitt explained the history of why minority communities have been reluctant to go to the police after they experience a hate crime. He said about 50% to 60% of hate crimes go unreported to law enforcement.

“There’s a fear,” he said, especially among immigrant and Latino communities. “They would rather not go to the police.”

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More than the fear of law enforcement, McDevitt said some victims don't want to think of crimes levied against them as hate crimes. Victims don't want to believe that they were attacked for their race or religion, he said, because that makes them feel vulnerable.

“They’d much prefer to believe that this person hit me randomly,” he said. “If you’re attacked because you're Black, you can’t do anything to change that. Wherever you go, you carry the cause of your victimization with you."

In Randolph, responding to reports of hate crimes or hate incidents – when actions don't rise to the level of what officers can arrest offenders for – is multi-faceted, the officers explained.

"We fortunately haven't had many hate crimes per se that are like violent crimes," Greener said. "It's not to say that they don't happen, it just means that we haven't dealt with them as a unit. It's more if someone was called a derogatory term, it's following up to see, 'Hey, did anything more happen with that? What was behind that?'"

According to the Norfolk County district attorney's office, recorded instances of hate crimes in the county in 2020 were, for the most part, low.

For hate crimes involving assault or battery, for example, two instances were recorded in 2020, he said. There were 76 instances of bias-motivated property crimes recorded. Assistant DA Mike Connolly said the number was likely far lower due to misreporting regular property crimes as bias-motivated crimes.

Connolly said the database system used by every DA's office in the state is old, and he wasn't confident in the numbers shown.

“The DA has been screaming for a new database for years,” he said.

What can police do for victims?

How police help victims of hate-motivated actions is also important. McDevitt said hate crimes are generally rare, and police officers don't run into them every day.

That rarity makes it more difficult for officers to respond, he said, adding that departments need specialists trained to investigate possible motivations of bias.

Often, Greener said, responding to possible hate crimes for Randolph means talking with the people involved and following up. Other times, their service means working with victims to see what they need.

Greener said the victim may want a no-contact order to keep the suspect away from them, something that gives them more empowerment than the police just pointing a victim in the direction of the nearest courthouse and saying "good luck."

Clifton said there is more to a community police unit than investigating hate crimes and more to a civil rights unit than a few courses or trainings.

“For us, it’s a lived experience," he said. "It’s not something that we just go to a workshop and we fully apprehend the magnitude of civil rights. It’s really an evolution from slavery to Black codes to Dred Scott to Brown v. Board of Education and up to today."

Norfolk County, like much of the country, has had its share of race-related concerns recently. Students at several high schools, including Randolph's, have walked out to protest a lack of support for students of color.

And the Randolph Police Department was recently embroiled in controversy after an officer driving a police cruiser struck a Black resident who was walking home on the night of Aug. 25, 2020.

The incident, which the department says was an accident as the officer was responding to a domestic violence call, sparked protests within the town alleging racism and calling for police accountability. The man struck by the car, Christopher Divens, was sent to the hospital with pelvic, head and neck injuries.

His mother protested outside the police station several times since the incident, and at one point was charged with disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and witness intimidation.

Partnering with Quincy Asian Resources Inc.

The police department is also planning to collaborate with Quincy Asian Resources Inc. to serve Randolph's diverse population.

"QARI could help us with interpretation," Greener said. "They can help with Haitian Creole, which is a predominant population in town. They can with the Vietnamese population. It's just a collaborative effort, is what we're really trying to bring."

The spirit of collaboration and connection is what Quincy Asian Resources is all about, its Massachusetts program manager, Rockey Chan, said.

"Social justice-wise, we're helping bridge that cultural gap so that the Asian community can have confidence to go to a parent-teachers meeting and ask the right questions, or when they have an issue like housing or food, they don't have to feel trapped," Chan said.

Quincy Asian Resources helps connect immigrant families to community services that are there to help them, Chan said. The nonprofit has being doing that for almost exactly 20 years.

The relationship between Randolph's police department and Quincy Asian Resources is still budding, Chan said but its goal is straightforward: bridging the gap.

What's next for the Randolph Police Department?

To Clifton, the Randolph police department is headed in the right direction but will need to make a substantial effort to keep civil rights at the forefront, not in the rearview mirror.

“It’s important that these issues are taken seriously because, for a large and increasing segment of the population, it is their life experience," he said. "It’s not just an outreach activity, it’s something substantive so we can see meaningful change.”

In a small community like Randolph, change like this could mean a lot for its many diverse residents, he said.

“I’m very excited about the prospects for Randolph," Clifton said. “I think that we could be a model for the rest of the commonwealth.”

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Reach Alex Weliever at aweliever@patriotledger.com.

This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Randolph Police Department expands its civil rights unit