DOJ Hits Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department With Wide-Ranging Consent Decree

from the bring-on-the-consent-decree-violations! dept

Praise be to the various gods! (Shout out to Tiamat!) The DOJ is back in the busting up local PD business, something it largely abandoned while Donald “A Police State Is The Best State” Trump held office for a single term.

The DOJ Civil Rights Division was relegated to the furthest back burner during Trump’s years in office as he pandered to (and encouraged) the worst aspects of law enforcement. Things are back to normal under Joe Biden, and investigations that were stalled have proceeded and now it’s the Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department feeling the sting of a federal complaint [PDF] and consent decree [PDF].

The announcement of the DOJ’s action against Springfield’s alleged finest comes via Courthouse News Service, which opens with some bad news followed by some marginally better news.

Video of a narcotics officer threatening to kill a Latino teenager and plant drugs on him did not result in the officer’s conviction but helped in part to cement a consent decree Wednesday between the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fortunately, the DOJ did not let this pass without comment as it announced the consent decree:

In announcing the settlement this morning outside the Springfield Federal Courthouse, U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins for the District of Massachusetts expressed her office’s disappointment that a jury acquitted veteran officer Gregg Bigda last year of criminal charges related to the incident.

“We prosecuted this officer because we believe … [the] conduct that was recorded on video shocked the conscience, so we are disappointed — we are not discouraged,” she told reporters. “We have real hope that the consent decree announced today will resolve our pattern or practice determination and we believe it addresses policy, training and cultural issues that allowed for the underlying incident of our criminal prosecution to ever happen in the first place.”

The DOJ wrapped up its investigation of the PD’s troubled/troublesome Narcotics Bureau — one that apparently turned a blind eye to excessive force deployment and other rights violations — in 2020. The DOJ’s report [PDF] noted that Narcotics officers routinely punched people in the face, deploying these “head strikes” repeatedly despite facing little to no resistance. It also pointed out Narcotics officers routinely (and quickly) escalated encounters with Springfield residents, presumably in search of excuses to start throwing punches.

The DOJ arrived at this conclusion:

Narcotics Bureau officers engage in uses of excessive force without accountability.

A conclusion illustrated in horrific detail by the rest of that paragraph.

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.”

Indictments are easy. Convictions, especially of cops, are hard. This is the case the Courthouse News Service report refers to in its opening paragraph.

But on to the better news. The complaint makes it clear the Springfield PD exercised nearly no control over the activities of officers in the Narcotics Bureau. Officers falsified reports to cover up excessive force deployment. But in most cases they didn’t even have to take that extra step because they were never required to fully document force deployment. The SPD did not require any reporting of punches, takedowns, or “other hands on uses of force.” The Narcotics Bureau operated in an accountability vacuum — one that also apparently encompassed other non-Narcotics officers.

On tap for the department is tons of detailed use-of-force reporting. The 69-page consent decree requires almost all force deployment to be reported, tabulated, and subjected to internal and external oversight. It also demands the PD engage in de-escalation tactics and retraining of officers in the proper use of force.

Unfortunately, as good as this is, neither the city nor the PD have done much to remove bad apples from Springfield’s barrel. And rebranding the Narcotics Unit doesn’t do much more than muddle Google search results. This is from the consent decree:

The Narcotics Bureau was a small unit of SPD plainclothes officers tasked with enforcing drug-related laws. Based on current crime trends and patterns, and to readjust the allocation of resources to both meet the needs of the Springfield community and target enforcement priorities on reducing gun violence, on July 8, 2021, the Springfield Police Commissioner announced that there would no longer be a unit within the SPD whose exclusive focus was enforcing drug-related laws.

Rather all of the officers, who were focused on drug-related offenses will be reassigned to a newly created Firearms Investigation Unit (“FIU”). One officer will also be assigned to work with the Hampden County District Attorney’s Strategic Action and Focused Enforcement Unit, although this is not expected to be a full-time assignment. Another officer will be assigned to work with the U.S. Marshal’s Violent Fugitives task force. The task forces mentioned, which are multi-jurisdictional, will continue to be focused on drug-related laws.

So, pretty much the same thing with the same personnel, but under a different name. This will allow officers who violated rights while with the Narcotics Bureau to get a fresh start on violating rights by tying their names to a new unit — one that name-checks firearms but is still mostly about drugs.

I don’t mean to sound entirely cynical about the chances of this consent decree doing the thing it’s supposed to do. But it targets a bureau that has been given a new name but almost no change in personnel or tactics. And consent decrees are more known for their violations than their successes.

But it’s better than leaving the Springfield PD to its own devices. Stripping it of some of its discretion is going to make it more difficult to continue ignoring wrongdoing by its officers. And that’s a step in the right direction.

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Comments on “DOJ Hits Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department With Wide-Ranging Consent Decree”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“Video of a narcotics officer threatening to kill a Latino teenager and plant drugs on him did not result in the officer’s conviction”

And this is how you know that the legal/justice system is completely broken.
We only have video if him doing it, how can we trust that?
You kept him out of jail so he could keep you safe, incapable of imagining your loved on in the place of the Latino teen??

And Tim, the Outer Elder Gods are best!

Walden says:

Consent Decree ??

What exactly is a DOJ Consent Decree ?

Sounds like some DOJ command to local government to Do or Not Do something ?

But DOJ is just a Federal Executive agency with no judicial or legislative power; where does it get the legal authority to tell anybody what to do?

And if Springfield Police personnel are guilty of criminal or civil offenses, why isn’t DOJ prosecuting them in the courts?

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