Chief Cordeiro’s tenure comes to a silent end
Five years ago, Joe Cordeiro was the consensus choice as a once-in-a-lifetime leader for New Bedford police chief.
Charming, smart and charismatic, everyone from the police union to the business community was beating the drum for him.
Fast forward five years and Cordeiro is leaving the job tormented by critics on all sides.
His hands-on style has all but shriveled under the constant gaze of a mayor who may be the most image-conscious politician to ever lead the city. His earnest efforts at community policing now seem inadequate in an era when some city youth and people of color have lost confidence in what seems to them an in-your-face approach to policing.
Among those who sponsored a recent study examining racial profiling among city police were the YWCA Southcoast, the Coalition for Social Justice, the Coalition to Save out Schools, and the Immigrant Assistance Center.
Cordeiro’s charisma has also failed to open eyes in a city police union that remains as resistant to progressive policing as the day he moved from the downtown station to Rockdale headquarters. Long gone are the days when the chief posed with Union President Hank Turgeon and the two pledged to work together. Enraged by what they see as Cordeiro’s too stringent demand for accountability for the rank-and-file, the police union has twice tried to get him fired.
Former Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro poses with officers he cited last week for bravery, including officers Lorenzo Gonzalez and Joseph Duarte, whom he cited for rescuing a woman from a burning building on Thanksgiving Day, 2020. Cordeiro is third from left [ Photo is courtesy of New Bedford Police Department ]
Cordeiro is not shy about touting his positive initiatives -- among them his program to give High Fives to grades school kids, police playing basketball in the ‘hood, a landlord’s outreach initiative, the YMCA youth dialogues, mindfulness training for officers who are interested. All good things.
But none of it has touched the deeply mistrustful way that any number of Black and Latino people feel about his department and none of it has changed the way some officers interact with the public, according to department critics.
There have been signs that all was not as it seemed in the transparent and progressive department the mayor and chief have boasted about.
There was Mayor Jon Mitchell’s request that the media not use the word “New Bedford” in headlines involving crime, petty and otherwise; his concern was for the online image of a city trying to rebuild its image and market itself. There was also Mitchell and Cordeiro’s criticism of judges for being too lenient on bail, even as the state had moved to make bail less punitive on low-income citizens.
And then there has been an approach to the release of public information that has made all but the most heinous crimes in New Bedford seem almost invisible. It has not escaped political insiders that Cordeiro is leaving just as he’s been criticized for failing to be transparent with the public.
In January, the now former chief’s department did not take the initiative to release news about a police officer’s public housing apartment being shot up; in February the department failed to pro-actively publicize a day-time drive-by shooting near the middle-class neighborhood of Buttonwood Park.
Online and electronic media had to lead the effort to inform the public in both cases. It took days to confirm that it was a police officer’s apartment that had been mistakenly fired upon at the Brickenwood housing development. The mayor himself astonishingly said he did not even know about the daytime shots fired incident between vehicles near Buttonwood.
Both Mayor Jon Mitchell and police Chief Joseph Cordeiro have dismissed the methodology used by a recent report that cited the New Bedford Police Department for racially profiling youth. The study was done by the statewide group Citizens for Juvenile Justice and was sponsored by a coalition of community groups from New Bedford whose icons are depicted above. [ Screen shot from Citizens for Juvenile Justice. ]
Both the mayor and chief have stressed that they cannot say much about certain events because of ongoing investigations. And in a city in which the federal government executed a major take down of the Latin Kings gang a little over a year ago, some of that is understandable. But the city’s leaders cannot avoid publicizing events that have taken place in broad daylight or are likely to catch the attention of media.
With any number of similar public occurrences over the last five years, the New Bedford department has waited until the press has asked if something has taken place before it acknowledges it. Yes, there are the routine listings on the police log, but it took this latest outcry on the lack of information for the department to finally get around to publishing the log on its website, years after it should have been there. Sometimes even the log itself has included a discouraging silence about matters that had come to the attention of the press.
In the wake of criticism, Cordeiro cut a video of himself saying the way news gets out is when the media or councilors call the department about something. That’s simply not enough, it’s reactive rather than proactive.
With the police buttoned up, individual officers and union sources have amped up their leaks to the City Council and friendly media.
Meanwhile, the go-to defense from the mayor’s office is that the union is using the media and the council as a bargaining chip for contract negotiations. There is probably some truth in that but the lack of timely information on some high-profile cases from Cordeiro’s department is nevertheless indisputable.
When I tried to ask Cordeiro about the mayor’s claim that the chief had not informed him of the Buttonwood shooting -- which both Mitchell and Cordeiro seem to imply was not a “major” event -- the chief was vague. Downright mysterious, in fact.
“The mayor is generally notified of all major issues,” he wrote me. He would only take questions on the subject in writing and answered the same way.
In one sense, this is a tragedy for Cordeiro because his personality and his inter-personal relationships have always been his strength.
During his last week on the job, the outgoing chief made a tour of the local media and talked about his accomplishments. He discussed things like the marked decline in crime in the city, his successful and laudable effort to improve relations with the undocumented immigrant community and the construction of a new public safety center. He sounded like he might run for office or become a missionary after some more vacation time in Florida, his go-to getaway place in recent years. Running for office might be a problem for him, however, if he intends to do it in New Bedford after these last five years.
As he leaves, Cordeiro and the mayor are engaged in a dispiriting effort to annihilate last week’s report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice on racial profiling in the city. The nonprofit used the police’s own data to point out what is undeniable: Black and Latino youth are interacting with police at a far higher rate than white kids in the city.
This is where Cordeiro and Mitchell’s approach to policing has most mirrored the over-policing that has plagued American police departments in general. It is an approach demanded by police unions, and even defended by some criminologists, but it is working nowhere. In light of the ongoing tragic ends of Black people interacting with police over minor incidents, including in New Bedford, it is fair to conclude it is dangerous.
A New Bedford police car in front of the downtown police station. [ Jack Spillane ]
In a press statement late this week, CfJJ -- defending itself against the dismissal of its data analysis by Cordeiro and Mitchell -- charged that New Bedford’s High Energy Patrol Initiative, still hasn’t gone away, just been renamed. The high energy initiative has been cited by many who objected to the events leading to the police shooting death of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia in 2012.
The city did not answer my inquiry about whether that stop-and-frisk like initiative has simply been renamed.
And as of Friday there had been no announcement from the city of any interest in starting a discussion about New Bedford police profiling that both CfJJ and NAACP New Bedford president LaSella Hall have asked for. The City Council on Thursday narrowly beat back an effort by Councilor Brian Gomes to condemn the CfJJ report, tabling it for the time being.
I received a message from Cordeiro at 10:45 Friday morning that he would call me back “in a few minutes” about my efforts to talk to him about these matters. I have been trying unsuccessfully to talk to him for weeks about the department and the transparency issues.
But he didn’t call back and by 11:24 a.m. Melissa Batchilder, the police department spokeswoman, sent the following message about my effort to talk to the chief: “Just got a message from the Chief that you were looking for him; it’s his last day so he’s out and about. I’m going to connect with Interim Chief and will have him weigh in.”
Neither Cordeiro, Acting Chief Paul Oliveira nor Batchilder ever called back.
Cordeiro is going out transparent and progressive on everything but what counts.