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DOJ launches consent decree with Springfield, Mass., police

A federal investigation found the department’s narcotics bureau had engaged in a pattern of excessive force

The Justice Department Building in Washington. (Alexander Drago/Reuters)

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that the police department in Springfield, Mass., has entered into a consent decree mandating specific reforms after a federal investigation determined in 2020 that the narcotics bureau engaged in a pattern of excessive force.

Justice officials and city leaders, appearing at a news conference in Springfield, said the court-approved agreement would lay out a road map for the department to improve accountability by requiring officers to report all uses of force, including punches and kicks, and creating a “force investigation team” to review the most serious incidents. A federal monitor will be appointed to oversee the reforms.

The Justice Department found “deficiencies in policies, training and accountability. Those deficiencies allowed violent uses of excessive force to go unreported and unchecked,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees DOJ’s civil rights division. “That eroded the public’s trust, and undermined the police department’s ability to fight crime.”

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Clarke was joined at the announcement by Rachael S. Rollins, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts; Springfield Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood; and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno (D).

Clapprood, who has overseen the 500-member department since early 2019, said she has already implemented reforms, including more training for officers and a leadership school for supervisors. She said she has a four-page list of timelines to pursue additional reforms under the consent decree.

“We want the reputation we deserve,” Clapprood said. “Our officers go out on shifts every day and put their lives on the line. They have to be recognized and have to be supported. This is just another way to support them.”

The consent decree is the first one launched by the Justice Department on policing since Attorney General Merrick Garland last year rescinded a near-ban imposed by the Trump administration, which viewed the agreements as federal overreach. The department under Garland has opened sweeping pattern-or-practice investigations into police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix, and Mount Vernon, N.Y., which experts say are also likely to culminate in consent agreements.

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President Biden is facing political pressure to bolster federal efforts on public safety amid a two-year rise in the rates of gun violence and homicides. But civil rights groups have expressed growing concern that the administration is losing urgency around police reform nearly two years after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others led to mass social justice protests.

Activists have pushed the Biden Justice Department to open more police investigations, but such probes are costly and time-consuming, lasting up to 18 months.

Clarke and Rollins said the DOJ probe into the Springfield police was led by career attorneys who gained sign-off for the investigation during the Trump administration and continued to pursue the consent settlement after Biden took office. It was the sole pattern-or-practice investigation undertaken by the Justice Department while President Donald Trump was in office.

“Today’s decree made clear we will not turn our backs on the need for policing reforms and constitutional policing,” Clarke said.

In announcing its findings, the Justice Department said the narcotics bureau’s use of excessive force “is directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies, which fail to require detailed and consistent use-of-force reporting, and accountability systems that do not provide meaningful reviews of uses of force.”

In a 28-report, federal authorities detailed specific incidents, including a 2016 case in which a narcotics officer, Gregg Bigda, kicked and spat on a juvenile, who is Hispanic, and told him, “Welcome to the white man’s world,” while making an arrest. The report also found that Springfield officers underreported the use of force, in violation of the police department’s standards.

A jury found Bigda, who was suspended without pay in 2018, not guilty on federal civil rights charges in December. In her remarks Wednesday, Rollins said she was “disappointed in the outcome” of that case because Bigda’s conduct “shocked the conscience.”

She added: “We have real reason to hope this agreement resolves our pattern-and-practice determination and addresses policy, training and cultural issues.”

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Springfield City Council President Marcus Williams said local officials have worked to try to implement changes to the police department, including the council mandating that Sarno, the mayor, name a five-member police commission to oversee hiring and firing in the department.

Williams said that as the Justice Department’s investigation stretched on, he and his colleagues on the council “expressed angst around what’s going on and how long the investigation was going to last and when are the reforms going to be implemented.” He added that council members met with the local U.S. attorney’s office to share their concerns.

“We are all in agreement that more needs to be done,” Williams said. “How it is done depends on the DOJ, and we are supportive of their efforts.”

The Justice Department’s use of consent decrees on policing during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have had mixed results, with several of the agreements stretching on far longer than anticipated — some more than a decade — and incurring steep costs for local governments.

Last fall, Garland and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta announced new guidelines that aim to make the process more efficient to help limit the cost and length of the consent orders.