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.

Filed Under: doj, gregg bigda, law enforcement, massachusetts, narcotics unit, pattern and practice, springfield


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 17 Jul 2020 @ 4:38am

    'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savagely...'

    Organized crime groups have got to be really annoyed by reports like this, as it shows that if you want to beat/rob/kill someone and get away scot-free you don't need to bribe a judge or blackmail the local politicians, all you need is to get a badge and you can assault anyone you please with nary a worry, knowing that since the people who will be looking into any complaints work with you they have a vested interest in looking the other way.

    Since I find it literally impossible to believe that after all these years and all these examples of why it's a horrible idea to have a police department investigate itself for wrongdoing I can only assume that results like those here, with not a single finding of wrongdoing over years despite it being well known that the thugs in the department regularly assaulted people is the desired goal of internal investigations.

    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.

    Not necessarily, as based upon the DOJ's own review this is a department that doesn't need 'reform' it needs to be scrapped entirely, with every last member fired and blacklisted from working any job funded by taxpayer dollars ever again(though I'm sure nearby departments will be overjoyed to scoop up such 'enthusiastic' officers). You don't 'reform' a bunch of violent psychopaths/sociopaths in uniform, you fire them and strip them of their power and authority as quickly as possible and only then think about what you want to replace them with and what rules you'll have in place to avoid a repeat of the previous situation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 17 Jul 2020 @ 5:20am

      Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savagely...'

      You don't 'reform' a bunch of violent psychopaths/sociopaths in uniform, you fire them and strip them of their power and authority as quickly as possible and only then think about what you want to replace them with and what rules you'll have in place to avoid a repeat of the previous situation.

      Post-WW2, the legislative and executive rebuilt in post-war Germany, in particular West Germany, had to rely to a large part on the same personnel that worked in those function in the Third Reich.

      It was a difference like that between night and day. Maybe not a starless night and a cloudless day, but still night and day.

      Accountability, culture, and laws can make a difference to what effects good and bad impulses in an individual are given reign to develop. While that may make a rather depressing statement about humans as such, it is a rather uplifting one about the potential of humanity to become better. Or worse.

      For "Law and order" to carry meaning as a slogan, the executive foremost has to be exemplary in adhering to the law and maintaining orderly behavior in their ranks. Accountability cannot just be a fig leaf or band aid, it has to be a pervasive principle of the operation.

      Citizens must be in the situation where they do not need to extend trust to individual officers to behave in sane and legal manner, but instead can rely on the structure and organisation of the executive to deal dependably with any violations of the law from within their ranks.

      Such a change cannot be effected by a president and administration focused on denial, blameshifting, scapegoating and self-praise.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Tanner Andrews (profile), 20 Jul 2020 @ 9:26pm

        Re: Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savagely...'

        For "Law and order" to carry meaning as a slogan

        Oh, it has meaning. The cry for ``law and order'' was part of the Nixon Southern Strategy to recruit folks to vote Republican who might otherwise have voted Wallace/KKK. That usage continues even unto this day. The top of the Republican ticket is espousing it even now.

        ``Law and order'' was what was waiting for John Lewis at the south end of the Pettis Bridge in Selma. I hope you are proud of yourself.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 21 Jul 2020 @ 7:11am

          Re: Re: Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savagely.

          It's honestly surprising that although I don't consider myself completely illiterate when it comes to history I don't recall any authority ever calling for "Law and Order" without it effectively meaning something to the effect of "Let's beat these uppity <insert minority here> back into their place".

          And that was, sadly, as true for Nixon as it was for Wallace. Even if Nixon was at least clever enough not to be openly racist in public.

          "...at the south end of the Pettis Bridge in Selma."

          I wish we could all say Bloody Sunday was just a piece of history from worse times. Pretty clear law enforcement hasn't progressed much in their treatment of black protesters, save that they now have pepper spray and rubber bullets to avail themselves of rather than just a hefty truncheon.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            ROGS, for lack of a better world, 23 Jul 2020 @ 11:32am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savag

            Your ignorance, racism, and attempts at pro -black racial display and racial empathy here are totally innacurate in this case.

            Bloody Sunday was a dominated Irish people rejecting Ptotestant Imperialism, and its attendant disregard for indigenous Irish lives (which MATTER ) as the British and their banksters installed absurd levels of murderous social controls.

            https://www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/u2s-sunday-bloody-sunday-meaning/

            Try again , Sweden-hof sperg!

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 Jul 2020 @ 5:09am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that s

              "Bloody Sunday was a dominated Irish people rejecting Ptotestant Imperialism"

              Not in the US where it refers to the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama where the demonstrators were met with violence at the south end of Pettus Bridge.

              But thanks again, Baghdad Bob, for demonstrating to everyone where you're coming from. Next time I'd advise you get your history from sources other than just music lyrics.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 8:33am

      Re: 'We're mobsters and even WE don't act that savagely...'

      We're supposed to say "blocklisted" now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 4:54am

    Take the entire report and use it to charge every cop

    Every single violation of rights should be a 1 percent decrease in the police budget and a payoff to the victims. We literally had a war with England over tactics like this and now we are pretending that this is in any away legal or justified? The whole system is rotten from the top to the bottom. Take away the pensions we paid for and make the cops feel the same justice their victims felt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    wshuff (profile), 17 Jul 2020 @ 5:08am

    “. . . 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.”

    And they were right,

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 5:15am

    Spelling Correction

    "The Trump Administration has all but abandoned its duty to hold the nation's law enforcement agencies accountable for wrongdoing."

    I take it that "all but" should have been "all butt," as in "totally assininely".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Kitsune106, 17 Jul 2020 @ 6:42am

    I am shocked

    Surely the DoJ is violating the officers libor rights
    . Also, they are not looking at reasonable officer standard. After all, they do say that all citizens approached are criminals and we have to dominate. It is reasonable officer standard, not reasonable citizen standard. And police are told it's a dangerous world out there and at war. Better to be judged by 12 then carried by six. And here I thought DoJ had to stand with police. They are anti cop. Thin blue line. They feared for life.....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 6:43am

    There's a reason that we on the eastern part of the state don't recognize anything west of Worcester as being part of Massachusetts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 7:57am

    it's a USA law enforcement section! what did anyone expect?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 17 Jul 2020 @ 8:08am

    How to fix this?

    A pattern and practice of assault, battery, racism, falsification of evidence, false arrest, perjury, obstruction of justice and insubordination. Probably murder, since they don't seem to have met a line they won't cross.

    Collusion to avoid prosecution and refusal to be accountable. Breach of trust and breach of oath.

    How do you even start to fix this?

    Is it any wonder that some people want to burn it all down and start over?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jul 2020 @ 8:48am

    SPD informed us that Narcotics Bureau command staff and officers were unwilling to engage in one-on-one interviews with us.

    i love how that works.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 17 Jul 2020 @ 12:17pm

    Who here..

    Would love the ability to Cause Harm to a person, and then Quit...
    And nothing is done.
    And if anything is taken to court, you disappear to another state, Far away.
    AND your past Problems never follow you threw the UNION you are working with.

    How many of us in RETAIL, would love to express into Someones Face...that they are an IDIOT.
    And nothing happen.
    And if it DID, you would goto another store chain, and get hired again...YOU CAN, because of the laws of what an employer can say, if they are called to check on employment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    restless94110 (profile), 18 Jul 2020 @ 11:51am

    Advertisement

    Another perfect example of why the War on Drugs should be ended today and all drugs legalized.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 20 Jul 2020 @ 3:33am

    Still counting the levels of fail here...

    "[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."

    That the DOJ needs to establish that baseline in an investigation dealing with the narcotics bureau department of the massachusetts PD is in itself messed up. Beyond the pale. It means they found the standard of police work employed is street-level thuggery.

    It's heartening that Bill Barr's DOJ was able to realize that such thuggery is wrong, of course...
    ...which leads us to the second level of abysmal, messed-up fail which is where you become disproportionately happy that the DOJ managed to get a single thing right because that's not the standard at which it normally operates.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      ROGS, for lack of a better world, 23 Jul 2020 @ 11:24am

      Re: Still counting the levels of fail here...

      What are you on about?

      You should drink less, and think more, Fritz.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ROGS, for lack of a better world, 23 Jul 2020 @ 11:20am

    Radical centrism requires a rethinking of how we are easily misled by partisan name calling.

    Obama, his ACORN terrorists, and his CIA sponsored NGOs did this too:

    “the Trump Administration has all but abandoned its duty to hold the nation's law enforcement agencies accountable for wrongdoing.”

    Stop sticking up for (partisan ) cops.

    Defund them all, and start over. From chaos to order, indeed.
    (GOOGLE Gandhi Mahal, and George Floyd, Minneapolis) for an eye opener about “getting shit done. ”

    I am talking to you, Tim, directly.
    And all of that “seasoned with a pinch of kosher salt, ” lol.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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