Governor Patrick gives awards to Lynn police for shooting veteran to death

Lynn Police Officers John R. Bernard, Joshua O. Hilton, and Paul J. Scali were all given awards for their involvement in the fatal shooting of Denis Reynoso. (Credit: Mass. State Police) 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.

Reynoso's grave on the one year anniversary of his death.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:

Lynn police block complaints with threats of arrest

While I was covering the one year memorial march for Denis Reynoso on September 5, I saw Lynn police officers, some in plainclothes, monitoring the protesters. Reynoso’s family have staged about half a dozen rallies in the year since a Lynn police officers ended Reynoso’s life under questionable circumstances and I have attended all but one of them. I have not seen any violence or criminality (or any calls for such) at any of these gatherings.

As we marched, I spotted an undercover police officer shadowing us in a beat-up Camry. I wondered why police were monitoring a peaceful protest, so I approached the officer’s vehicle and asked him for his ID. I intended to include his presence in my story about the march and I wanted to follow up with the department about why police had been assigned to monitor the protest.

I cannot speak to the officer’s intent when he drove into me but I can say that he was very clearly aware of my location in proximity to his vehicle when he began driving and when he hit me with his mirror. Just before the officer began to drive, he waved to me and then he stared at me as he drove. He hit me with enough force that the side mirror folded back. I was not injured.

The officer stopped after he hit me and got on his radio, but at no time did he check on me, identify himself, or offer any aid. I left at that point because it was clear that the officer, who had not even rolled down his window, had no desire to speak with me. The officer drove past me a short while later without any attempt to get my attention as he returned to the police station.

The Lynn police know how serious an incident can be when a car is driven at anyone. Police in Lynn shot and killed a driver, Brandon Payne, for endangering officers in 2012 after Payne reportedly rammed a police car. Last year, in the neighboring town of Saugus, police shot a man after they allege he drove at them in a Camry which, by coincidence, is the same type of vehicle that the Lynn officer hit me with.

The incident I was involved in wasn't quite as serious as those two incidents were described. It was a low speed issue and did not cause me to fear for my life. Nevertheless, I thought the police officer who drove into me was careless at best and should be held accountable for his actions.

On September 8, I entered the Lynn police station to try to sort the problem out. I requested public documents, asked for a comment (or a no comment), and asked for a criminal investigation regarding the incident. The Lynn police took my records request while telling me they were not likely to follow the Massachusetts public records law.

Lynn Police Lieutenant James Shorten took an initial report of the car hitting me and informed me that there was no record or log of the incident. Unbelievably, the officer who hit me had obviously not made a log or report and whoever he radioed to after hitting me had likewise failed to make any report or log of any kind. The lack of a report was surprising to me considering that the incident resulted in damage to the police vehicle.

After giving a basic report to Shorten, I went out to the Lynn police station’s back parking lot. I found the Camry and noticed that the car had been repaired in a DIY fashion. The mirror was reattached to the vehicle with a screw. Given the lack of any report, whoever repaired the car had obviously done so without making any documentation and may have tampered with the evidence.

While in the back lot, I was approached by a Lynn police officer. The officer refused to identify himself, including refusing to show his police ID card upon request (which he claimed not to have) which he is required to show under state law. Any municipal police officer must carry and present a police ID card upon lawful request under Massachusetts law. That officer claimed that the only way to learn a Lynn police officer’s name is to speak with the chief.

The unidentified officer asked what I was doing in the back lot and I reported to him that the car I was looking at had been driven into me. At that point, I had just reported a potentially serious incident to an on-duty, uniformed Lynn police officer who responded by ordering me to leave the “private property” belonging to the City of Lynn Police. The officer even refused to radio in the license plate number to the Shorten, who had asked me for it when I made the initial report.

I left the lot and returned to the front desk to tell Shorten that the car had been tampered with and that it was out back – two important pieces of information that he needed to know as soon as possible so that he could make sure that the incident was looked into fully and so that the tampering could be investigated as well. This was important because the Shorten needed to act immediately to preserve the evidence. Lastly, I wanted to make a complaint about the officer who did not present his ID card and who claimed that the police station was “private property.”

When I reached the main desk, the unidentified officer from the back lot came out front to suppress my attempt to report what was going on. That officer was quickly joined by a second officer who told me he was “tasked with seeing that [I] leave.” That officer gave a badge number but did not present an ID card upon request. I was not allowed to speak with Shorten, though I was told he knew I was present and at one point Shorten popped his head out, then left as I tried to speak with him.

During the course of the interaction, two other Lynn police officers and Sergeant Thomas McDermott joined us. McDermott first addressed me by telling me I was subject to arrest then asked what I needed. This was a very intimidating way to begin an interaction.

I tried to explain to McDermott the car that had hit me was in the back lot, had been tampered with, and the evidence needed to be preserved, but he was not interested in listening to me.

McDermott reiterated that the Lynn police station is “private property,” kept claiming I had “no legitimate business” in the Lynn police department, and then claimed that my attempt to report the issues was “creating a disturbance.” One of the other officers present claimed that our interaction created a disturbance because people were unable to conduct business at main desk. I agree that there was a disturbance going on, but it was caused by McDermott yelling at me, not my attempt to make my complaints.

Ultimately, McDermott placed me under threat of arrest for “trespassing” and “creating a disturbance” in the public main lobby of the Lynn police station. I left at that point, afraid for my safety and well-being. The Lynn police had managed to successfully intimidate me into not finishing the complaint process.

In two follow-up emails, another sergeant with the Lynn police would not say if I am still under threat of arrest.

I emailed Police Chief Kevin Coppinger on September 24 to ask him for an independent investigation of his entire department since the default response many of his officers have to complaints seems to be to threaten people who try to make them. My experience left me with a total lack of confidence in their ability to handle complaints themselves. I have not heard back from Coppinger yet.

Since September 8, I received a response to my records request. The department did not mail out a reply until 11 days later even though the public records law requires a response within 10 days. The department has asked for $500.54 in fees for the records. I plan to challenge the fees, which I consider to be excessive.

Sergeant Timothy McDermott (second from the right) threatened to arrest me for trying to make a complaint.