Police officers who nearly died in line of duty push back on Massachusetts police reform efforts

It was a split-second of hesitation that Det. Mario Oliveira and Officer Bob DeNapoli said cost them both of them their careers and nearly their lives — a kind of hesitation they say is bound to become more common should the Legislature’s police reform bills turn into law.

“I didn’t see a gun and I hesitated. Looked away for a split second and I got shot six times,” Oliveira says of a Nov. 2, 2010, encounter in Somerville with a 21-year-old man suspected of selling untraceable firearms to Boston gangs. One of the bullets missed.

DeNapoli was responding to a robbery on Sept. 6, 2011, in Woburn when two men — who didn’t fit the description of the suspects — loitering near a car suddenly surrounded him as he exited his cruiser and one opened fire.

“We have to make split-second decisions,” DeNapoli said, noting he barely got his gun out his holster by the time before a gunfight ensued. “My backup was only 13 seconds behind me. I was shot six times and I shot him twice in 10 seconds.”

Oliveira died twice on the operating table and years later suffered a massive heart attack and later a stroke — both, doctors said, were directly related to the shooting. DeNapoli suffers from PTSD and is permanently blind in his left eye. Shrapnel and bits of bullets remain buried in his arms and legs.

Now the two men head the Violently Injured Police Officers Organization, which provides peer support to injured officers. They said they worry injuries will increase as officers are forced to “second guess” themselves or refrain from using forceful tactics like chokeholds when confronted with an assailant who aims to kill them.

But the Rev. Darryl Malden, an attorney and pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fall River, said the bill is about police “being accountable to the community.”

Dueling police reform bills passed in the state House and Senate are being reconciled in conference committee by lawmakers. Both bills seek to create the state’s first-ever licensing system for police and increase training around racial issues. The bills would also ban chokeholds and place limits on lethal force tactics. The Senate’s would cut qualified immunity, which can protect officers from liability for misconduct.

“Without a doubt this bill and with these changes to qualified immunity, cops will be hesitant to go about their jobs,” Oliveira said.

Last year, 89 officers were killed in the line of duty across the United States, according to FBI statistics. Roughly 18,000 officers were injured in assaults in 2018 — the most recent year for which data is available.

But many more people die at the hands of police. In 2019 the Washington Post reported 999 people were shot and killed in 2019 alone — 25% of those were black, a fraction that far outstrips the U.S. population. No centralized government database of police killings exists.

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