DOJ Follows Up Springfield (MA) PD Consent Decree With An Investigation Of The Worcester PD
from the I-guess-there's-no-need-to-buy-anyone-a-flight-home dept
Two years ago, the DOJ opened up an investigation into the Springfield, Massachusetts police department, targeting its troubled Narcotics Unit. Like far too many other drug-focused units, the Springfield Narcotics Unit was filled with officers who routinely engaged rights violations.
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.
This investigation expanded to cover the rest of the Springfield PD, which the DOJ reasonably believed also contained problematic officers. Two years later, the DOJ applied a consent decree aimed at bringing the PD back in line with the Constitution. Whether this will change the way the PD handles its bad cops is anyone’s guess, but the PD’s decision to simply rebrand the Narcotics Unit as the “Firearms Investigation Unit” suggests this won’t be the last time the DOJ will be visiting Springfield.
It’s not just a Springfield problem. It’s a Massachusetts problem. More to the point, it’s a law enforcement problem. If there’s a silver lining, this new investigation of a Massachusetts police department (separated by only a few months from the Springfield investigation) suggests DOJ investigators never got a chance to board a flight out of the state, perhaps saving taxpayers a bit of cash.
Just months after the Justice Department concluded a widespread investigation of police brutality in the Bay State’s third-largest city, Springfield, it opened a new one Tuesday in its second-largest city, Worcester.
In addition to studying what it called a pattern or practice of excessive force by Worcester cops, the department said Tuesday it will investigate whether there has been discriminatory enforcement based on race and sex.
The Worcester PD has problems. The DOJ didn’t provide many specifics in its announcement of this investigation, but there’s plenty of information out there that fills in the gaps in the DOJ’s vague narrative.
Perhaps one of the most innocuous allegations is that one officer, Rodrigo Oliveira, routinely held loud, annoying, and crowded parties at his home — parties where guests tended to wander the street annoying people and neighbors, hoping to have a peaceful night’s rest, saw those plans go to waste as Oliveira and his guests got wasted. But, if you’re not willing to internally police the small things, it’s unlikely you’re willing to hold officers accountable for the rights violations they commit while on the clock.
The lieutenant instructed neighbors to call police if the problems persisted. He also alerted dispatch that a supervisor should always respond to Oliveira’s address for future calls.
“Officer Oliveira said that he understood,” the internal affairs report said.
In January 2020, the report concluded Oliveira was “exonerated” from the allegations of “discourtesy” and “awareness of activities.”
However, records show the parties and the 911 calls continued, even as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. An incident history at Oliveira’s address listed eight different “loud party” calls after the internal investigation.
Then there’s wrongful arrest lawsuit, filed by Dana Gaul after Worcester cops decided he fit the description, even though he didn’t actually fit the description.
Witnesses at the scene described the perpetrator as a thin, light-skinned or white man, about 5 feet, 7 inches (1.7 meters) tall, while Gaul is Black, weighs 200 pounds (91 kilograms) pounds and is 5 feet, 10 inches (1.8 meters) tall, his lawyers said.
Investigators coerced some people — none of whom were actually at the scene of the stabbing — into saying that grainy surveillance video of the suspect looked like Gaul, according to the suit filed by Debra Loevy and Mark Reyes.
In addition, DNA found on the victim’s body and clothes was compared to Gaul’s DNA, but did not match, according to his lawyers. Gaul did not know Rose and was nowhere near the scene of the stabbing, his lawyers said.
It also appears the city is willing to run interference for the PD in order to hide evidence of wrongdoing from public records requesters.
A judge excoriated Worcester for its unlawful three-year campaign to keep police misconduct records secret from a local newspaper, writing in a recent ruling that a city lawyer attempted to mislead the court and “did not act in good faith.”
Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ordered the city to pay $101,000 to cover the legal fees of its paper of record, the Telegram & Gazette. To hold the city accountable for its intransigence, she also ordered it to pay $5,000 in punitive damages.
It is the third time in two decades the T&G has taken the city to court over the issue of police-misconduct records—and the third time the newspaper has succeeded.
Three times. If you want some “pattern and practice” evidence, this string of lawsuits over PD opacity will provide the DOJ with some investigative ammo.
Here’s more: city residents are on the hook for an $8 million settlement in another wrongful conviction lawsuit. That won’t give 16 years of freedom back to the wrongfully accused man, but it’s a start.
A jury has awarded Natale Cosenza, of Worcester, $8 million and $30,000 in punitive damages in a lawsuit involving two Worcester Police sergeants.
The jury found that Sergeant Kerry Hazelhurst concealed evidence and fabricated evidence in the case that led to Cosenza’s conviction. The jury also found that Hazelhurst and Sergeant John Doherty conspired to conceal and fabricate evidence. Six others from the Worcester Police Department were removed from the original complaint prior to trial.
Cosenza served 16 years in prison for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and armed burglary of a woman before being released in 2016.
More “pattern and practice” evidence: this case involved an officer who contributed to another wrongful conviction.
Doherty was one of the interrogators who extracted a confession from then 16-year-old Nga Truong in 2008. Truong spent three years behind bars awaiting trial before a judge determined the confession was “the product of deception, trickery and implied promises to a frightened teenager,” according to WBUR. The City of Worcester settled that lawsuit in 2016 for $2.1 million.
The Worcester PD has generated dozens of civil rights lawsuits and forced residents to pay out millions in settlements. This history of abuse prompted residents to petition the DOJ to investigate the department. Whether or not this petition was instrumental in the DOJ’s investigation is unknown, but the end result is a department that has ceded control to its officers, no matter how much damage they create, will have to explain to federal investigators why its workforce is so terrible at respecting rights.
The end of this investigation is still years off. And it will probably be another half-decade before the DOJ secures a consent decree that has only a slim chance of actually reforming the Worcester PD. But, for now, the Worcester PD is generating national headlines for all the wrong reasons. Hopefully, that will generate the heat and friction needed to start moving the department towards a better relationship with the people it serves and an increased respect for their rights.