On Wednesday, three Lynn police officers were given awards by Governor Deval Patrick for their involvement in the fatal shooting of a military veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to The Daily Item.
Officers John Bernard, Joshua Hilton, and Paul Scali were given Trooper George L. Hanna Memorial Awards for Bravery for their roles in the death of Denis Reynoso, a veteran who defused roadside bombs in Iraq. Reynoso was shot to death by Hilton in his apartment in front of his five-year-old son on September 5, 2013.
The Hanna award, which was named after a state trooper who was shot to death during a traffic stop, "is the highest medal a Massachusetts law enforcement officer can receive," according to the Massachusetts State Police. A total of 25 police officers received the award on Wednesday.
The three officers involved in the Reynoso shooting were nominated for the award by Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger, who wrote in his nomination letter that the officers "were courageous in dealing with the life-threatening situation that was suddenly thrust upon them" and "were humane in immediately rendering medical aid to the injured party."
The shooting was ruled justified by Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who explained his decision to clear the three officers involved in the shooting of criminal wrongdoing in a four-and-a-half page report released in January.
According to Blodgett’s report, police were dispatched to the apartment complex where Reynoso lived after receiving a call that he had been outside yelling at people and behaving erratically. Reynoso went back into his apartment before the police arrived, but they were directed there by several witnesses, including a postal worker who informed the police that Reynoso was a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. The police entered the home, but said Reynoso grabbed one of their guns and managed to fire off two shots before one of the officers fired a fatal shot into his chest.
Despite the district attorney's determination, the shooting of Reynoso was highly controversial. A number of protests were held, including one that attracted over a hundred family members, friends, and other supporters. The most recent protest, which was attended by several dozen people, was held on the one year anniversary of Reynoso's death.
There was no physical evidence linking Reynoso to the gun he allegedly fired. The DNA test performed on the gun was inconclusive and investigators did not find any gunshot residue on Reynoso’s hands.
Furthermore, the police reports and interviews with the three officers, which were obtained by The Bay State Examiner earlier this year by making a public records request, contained several contradictions.
Shortly after the shooting, family members petitioned the police department for an independent investigation, but the investigation was handled by the local district attorney's office, which is standard for fatal police shooting cases in Massachusetts.
Records obtained by The Bay State Examiner show that the three officers involved in the shooting have worked with the district attorney's office on hundreds of cases, showing a clear conflict of interest.
Since at least 2002, district attorneys in Massachusetts have never prosecuted police officers for fatal shootings, no matter what the circumstances of the shooting were.
The Reynoso shooting should be seen as a failure whether it was legally justified or not. It is the sort of incident that should provoke somber reflection, not celebration.
Chief Coppinger did not propose any policy changes for defusing confrontations with people suffering from mental illness after the shooting. The only action he proposed was buying new holsters for his officers. The district attorney's report stated that Reynoso was able to easily disarm an officer because his holster was worn out and missing a screw.
"A very sick man died and people receive an award? An officer allowed a person to get his weapon and receives an award? This is good police work?" one commenter on The Daily Item wrote. "The fact that there is controversy about the shooting is enough to stop such an award."
"It seems almost too ridiculous to be true. Or at least too insensitive. Especially during a time when the behavior of law enforcement is front-and-center nationwide," DigBoston journalist Chris Faraone wrote.
Jessica Spinney, Reynoso's fiancée, urged people to call Governor Patrick and complain about his decision to give the awards on her Facebook page.
Update (11/21/14): DigBoston reports on Jessica Spinney's reaction to the awards:
“I woke up [on Thursday] and I had a message from a mutual friend, and she was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I kind of left it like that, and while I usually look at the Item first-thing, I didn’t that day, and then around 12 o’clock I had a message from my sister-in-law, and she told me.
“It’s not like I’m going to go crazy, but it really feels like it’s rekindling everything, and right before the holidays. My phone has been going off like it was on the day he passed away.
“The governor must have done this without knowing the facts. There has to be another instance in Lynn that could have gotten rewarded. Maybe they saved someone from overdosing.
“I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know what the heck is going on, and it’s my life. I know they’re just trying to cover their asses, but to do something like that is just disgusting.
“I can’t believe he’s being rewarded when he killed an innocent man in front of his five-year-old son.”
Watch our video about the one year memorial march for Denis Reynoso here: