DOJ Says Massachusetts Drug Unit Routinely Engaged In And Lied About Excessive Force Deployment
from the so-bad-even-Trump's-DOJ-couldn't-ignore-it dept
The Trump Administration has all but abandoned its duty to hold the nation’s law enforcement agencies accountable for wrongdoing. When Trump took office, he immediately declared his administration would “end” the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere.” Being pro-accountability means being “anti-police,” apparently. Trump’s DOJ immediately took action to comply with the new boss, focusing on eliminating the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office and severely curtailing its investigations of law enforcement agencies.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights office hasn’t been completely eliminated. But its focus has shifted towards “protecting” churches from COVID-related closures and dismantling Section 230 to
protect the children destroy encryption.
It’s 2020 and the DOJ is only now delivering the results of its first “pattern and practice” investigation of a law enforcement agency. This one targets the Narcotics Bureau run by the Springfield, Massachusetts police department. This investigation was prompted by the actions of two of its members, which resulted in federal criminal charges.
A police officer and a former narcotics detective with the Springfield Police Department in Massachusetts are facing federal charges for allegedly beating and spitting on two Latino teens during an arrest in 2016.
Officer Gregg A. Bigda, 48, was charged with three counts of violating the civil rights of arrestees and one count of obstructing justice by writing a false report, according to a release from the Department of Justice. Detective Steven M. Vigneault, 48, who resigned in 2016 following the incident, was charged with one count of violating the civil rights of an arrestee.
The DOJ’s investigation [PDF] shows these officers were indicative of the Narcotics Bureau’s problems, rather than outliers straying far from the mean. Here’s how the DOJ describes the events leading to these charges:
The indictment alleges that the sergeant kicked one of the youths in the head, spat on him, and said, “welcome to the white man’s world.” Further, the sergeant allegedly threatened to, among other things, crush one of the youth’s skulls and “fucking get away with it,” “fucking bring the dog back [and] let him fucking go after” a youth, “fucking kill [one of the youth] in the parking lot,” charge a youth with a murder and “fucking make it stick,” and that he would “stick a fucking kilo of coke in [one of the youth’s] pocket and put [him] away for fucking fifteen years.” The indictment also alleges that during interrogation, the sergeant “pointed to blood on his boot” and told one of the youths that if he lied, the youth’s “blood would be on [the sergeant’s] boot next.”
The DOJ says it has “reasonable cause” to believe this is how most Narcotics Bureau officers routinely behave. It uncovered plenty of excessive force deployment and says there’s probably even more than what it found due to habitual under-reporting of force usage.
The DOJ reviewed 114,000 pages of reports created by the Narcotics Bureau and interviewed supervisors and other staff from the Springfield Police Department. However, the investigation is missing a key element: personal interviews with Bureau members.
Although we attempted several times, we did not individually interview any Narcotics Bureau commanders or officers currently serving within the Narcotics Bureau. SPD informed us that Narcotics Bureau command staff and officers were unwilling to engage in one-on-one interviews with us.
Even without their cooperation, the DOJ found enough evidence suggesting Bureau officers routinely deploy excessive force. First, the DOJ sets the baseline:
[A]ccording to nationally accepted standards, punching a subject in the face should not be the first method of trying to gain compliance of a subject.
And then applies it to its findings:
Narcotics Bureau officers regularly punch subjects in the head and neck area without legal justification. The routine reliance on punches during arrests and other encounters that we discovered during our investigation indicates a propensity to use force impulsively rather than tactically, and as part of a command-and-control approach to force rather than an approach that employs force only as needed to respond to a concrete threat.
Contrary to law, SPD policy, and national standards, Narcotics Bureau officers routinely resort to punching subjects’ head areas with closed fists as an immediate response to resistance without attempting to obtain compliance through other less serious uses of force. Out of all 84 Narcotics Bureau Prisoner Injury Files from 2013 through 2019, roughly 19% of the uses of force reviewed included punches to subjects’ heads, and approximately an additional 8% involved injuries to subjects’ heads from another form of a head strike. In a significant number of these cases, such force was unreasonable.
The DOJ’s report details three incidents involving officers punching arrestees, pointing out that in all three cases multiple officers were present and a lower level of force could have been used to restrain the person. In one case, officers assaulted a person who was riding by an arrest scene on a motorbike. The 17-year-old was struck by an officer as he rode by, which was followed by another officer punching the driver’s brother in the face in supposed self-defense — a narrative no other officer at the scene corroborated.
This is the Bureau’s “pattern and practice” — something that apparently bleeds over into the rest of the Springfield PD.
These incidents are merely examples and are not atypical within the Narcotics Bureau. We found multiple incidents in which officers used head strikes following a pursuit, even when officer reports suggest the subject was already subdued, including an incident where the Department of Justice has charged the officer with criminal color of law violations. Tellingly, a former Narcotics Bureau officer reported that people know that if you mess with the SPD or try to run, you “get a beat down.” Incident reports we reviewed support this officer’s observation.
The report notes that Narcotics Bureau members — who patrol in plain clothes and drive unmarked vehicles — routinely escalate situations by refusing to identify themselves as law enforcement officers before engaging with suspects. And by “engaging,” I mean “assaulting.”
[W]e reviewed incidents in which officers’ failure to identify themselves resulted in pursuits that ultimately escalated into unreasonable uses of force. In two nearly identical situations we reviewed involving vehicle pursuits, the drivers stated that they did not immediately stop their vehicles because they did not know that the plainclothes Narcotics Bureau officers in pursuit were in fact officers and instead feared they were being chased by criminals. The narcotics officers were in unmarked cars, and did not activate their lights. Once the drivers did eventually stop their cars—in one case because an officer in a marked cruiser came on scene and activated his blue lights, and in the other case because the individual collided with another car—the police then used unreasonable force to effect the arrests.
The DOJ says officers routinely downplayed use of force in reporting by using vague and conclusory language. In some cases, booking photos undercut narratives by showing serious injuries not documented anywhere in officers’ reports. In other cases, the officers’ lies were exposed by their own camera footage. The DOJ couldn’t find evidence contradicting every use-of-force report, but it found enough.
[T]hese inaccurate reports indicate that it is not uncommon for Narcotics Bureau officers to write false or incomplete narratives that justify their uses of force.
Part of the blame the DOJ places on SPD policies, which aren’t as clear as they could be when it comes to booking processes and use-of-force reporting. But most of the blame goes to the department’s unwillingness to hold officers accountable.
Deficiencies within SPD’s broader systems of accountability exacerbate these issues. For example, although SPD policy requires that senior command staff refer to SPD’s Internal Investigations Unit (IIU) any questionable force incident resulting in injury, from 2013 to 2018, command staff did not make any referrals in cases involving the Narcotics Bureau; indeed, not a single such referral was made throughout the entire Department. Further, while IIU has investigated some excessive force complaints made by members of the public, its investigations lack critical content needed to determine if an allegation should be sustained. This has resulted in zero sustained findings of excessive force against any Narcotics Bureau officer in the last six years.
Given this fact, it’s no surprise the Bureau — along with the SPD itself — has devolved into a mess so ugly even the vehemently pro-police DOJ can’t ignore it. But while this investigation may have uncovered the nasty truth about Springfield’s drug warriors, it will take a DOJ that actually cares about accountability to follow through with the mandated reforms. It’s not clear this particular DOJ can sustain the pressure needed to actually result in needed reforms.