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Holyoke chief tries to lead chorus against the court

Urged picketing over bail practices

Chief Anthony R. Scott took to the radio over a recent case. Chief Anthony R. Scott took to the radio over a recent case. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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HOLYOKE - Seven years ago, Julius Taylor was arrested on drug possession charges, then released on the promise that he’d show up in court. The judge never saw him again. Five years later, Taylor was arrested on charges of destruction of property and disorderly conduct. Again he was released and again, he didn’t show in court. This spring, confronted by police on a domestic violence call, the 29-year-old threw himself at officers, kicking one in the face.

“What does it take to keep an individual such as this behind bars?’’ the city’s outraged police chief, Anthony R. Scott, wrote in an invective fired off to the local newspaper.

Fed up with judges who set alleged criminals free, Scott has launched a one-man crusade against what he says is a broken judicial system. He has called for picketing of courthouses, proposed legislation to put judges’ names on ballots every six years, and created a website listing judicial decisions that he deems bad.

His campaign gives voice to an age-old gripe in police departments, that criminals arrested at great expense and danger to strained police departments routinely slip through the cracks once they reach the court system. But most police officials have confined their complaints to their own ranks. Scott, who seems to relish raising the hackles of the establishment, says someone should take bold action.

“There are judges who would like to dig a hole under the nearest jail and put me in it,’’ Scott said. “But I am not concerned about that. To me, this is a public safety issue.’’

In this city of 40,000 residents, among the poorest communities in the state, where the True Deliverance Church across from City Hall is boarded up and hard-worn downtown streets may have an air of danger, Scott’s message resonates with some residents.

The judges “are sending a bad message that people can get away with crime,’’ said Christine Rowinski, a Holyoke native. “We are disarming the police’s efforts at a time when their resources are stretched.’’

But popular as the message might be on the streets, some observers say it betrays a bald transgression.

“This is driven by the personality of someone who thinks he should have more control over judicial decisions, when the Constitution makes clear that the judiciary is independent,’’ said William Teahan Jr., a retired Springfield district court judge of 20 years. “It’s not naivete by the chief as much as a calculated effort to get higher bail set because he thinks it should be higher.’’

Scott became Holyoke’s police chief in 2001, the first chief picked from outside the department. At the time, Holyoke was beset by nightly drive-by shootings, and a spiraling homicide rate. Scott, a native of New Orleans who had served 20 years on that police force before becoming police chief in Athol and later Rock Island, Ill., was seen as the man who could clamp down.

From the beginning, he made clear his conservative, tough-on-crime stance and launched large-scale police sweeps that rounded up wanted criminals. Today the number of crimes is 17 percent lower than when Scott took the job, while violent crime has fluctuated and returned to 2001 levels, according to data provided by the city.

Scott has been a fixture on local television, sporting suspenders and lobbing assaults at the judiciary. The attacks are not surprising, some say, coming from a man comfortable with unconventional roles: He is an African-American with deep ties to the Republican Party (his office shelves are lined with photographs of President Bush and other Republican leaders), a lifelong cop who touts his college degree in business administration - not his many credits in criminal justice - and a Southerner living in New England.

Some say that while Scott’s concern about the judiciary has merit, his methods are heavy-handed.

“I agree with the message, but I wonder if he is taking the best tack,’’ said Kevin Jourdain, a city councilor. “In the end, I’m not sure how effective he’ll be if he is the only voice crying out in the wilderness.’’

Scott said that a number of police chiefs are backing him but he declined to name them, and so far, he is not getting public support from other chiefs.

“We do in many instances arrest the same people for crimes, and that’s frustrating . . . but I wouldn’t place blame on the judges,’’ said Police Chief John Romero of Lawrence. “If I had to lay blame, it’s with the system in general.’’

Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavalle said judges have few options with repeat offenders because of jail overcrowding. “It’s easy to second-guess them, but I am sure those calls are not easy.’’

Scott has a retort to the overcrowding problem: creative sentencing. Rather than jail shoplifters, for example, judges could sentence them to stand in stockades in malls, where a sign would read “I am a thief,’’ he said.

Scott’s criticism of the judiciary reached a new peak recently after the first homicide in Holyoke in more than a year. The victim, Luis Fernandez, 43, had failed to appear for court hearings on a previous arrest and then, on June 21, was shot with a 45-caliber semiautomatic pistol during a drug deal gone bad. Shortly before he died, Fernandez refused to tell officers who had shot him, saying he would take care of the problem himself.

“If the judges had exercised a modicum of concern, this individual would have been in jail instead of conducting his drug business on the street,’’ Scott said.

Afterward, Scott took to the radio, urging people to picket courthouses in the Holyoke area and Boston. He says he had several dozen residents ready to join him in the picketing. Two days later, Scott called off the pickets after he learned that a state statute bars picketing of courthouses intended to influence a judge.

The American Civil Liberties Union has declined to challenge the law since a US Supreme Court decision in 1965 upheld a Louisiana statute virtually identical to Massachusetts’. Scott is unbowed. He says the law violates the First Amendment and is seeking a lawyer to challenge its constitutionality.

Should Scott prevail, one resident who won’t be joining him in the picketing is Miguel Vargas. The 35-year-old Holyoke resident, who works as a personal caretaker, said judges are doing a fine job.

Scott “shouldn’t be trying to change bail,’’ Vargas said as bought roast pork at the Holyoke Oasis. “People should have bail because they have families and they need to support their families. If they are found guilty, then they should go to jail. But they should have bail because if they’re in jail, they can’t get a lawyer, they can’t hustle.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.