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DOJ Report Torches Pearl Street on Excessive Force, Narcotics Bureau…

UPDATED 10:37AM: To include statements from the City Council.

Thankfully, the Fire Department if right around the corner because the US DOJ sets fire to Pearl Street in a new report. (WMP&I)

After a two-year investigation, officials from the Department of Justice have found a disquieting pattern excessive force, shoddy and false recordkeeping and crummy supervision in the Narcotics Bureau of the Springfield Police Department. The damning portrait of rampant constitutional violations at Pearl Street drops in the middle of a nationwide social justice movement that has powered fresh demands for police reform in the city.

The offices of both Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in Washington produced the report. At the onset of the investigation it was widely reported that Lelling and the Civil Rights Division’s Chief of Special Litigation Steven Rosenbaum had met with Springfield officials. Indeed, Justice officials note the city’s cooperation and appear to be looking toward the next step.

“Our investigation of the Springfield Police Department over the last year revealed chronic issues with the use of force, poor record keeping on that subject, and repeated failures to impose discipline for officer misconduct,” Lelling said in a statement.

“That said, the Police Department and the City of Springfield have fully cooperated with this investigation and have made clear their commitment to genuine reform. We look forward to working with them to make Springfield a safer place.”

The investigation, which included dozens of interviews and reviewed over 100,000 pages of documents, is apparently the DOJ’s only patterns of practices investigation opened during the Trump administration.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling, among the rare Boston-based officials to detect the rot in Pearl Street. (via wikipedia)

Lelling’s office is also prosecuting one narcotics cop, Gregg Bigda for criminal violation of civil rights. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has also charged  officers who worked in the unit in the Nathan Bill’s.

The investigation covers a parade of horribles from the Narcotics Bureau from 2013 to 2018. In addition to clear, but unnamed references to Bigda and the Nathan Bill’s incident, the report notes the indictment of a long-serving, now-deceased cop for stealing cash from the evidence room.

DOJ describes Narcotic Bureau officers as routinely using excessive force, like punching or otherwise inflicting blows to suspects’ head. Many of these incidents have no documentation. Pearl Street only requires use-of-force reports when offices use a tool on an individual.

Although state law requires reports on injuries of arrestees, these are often vague, rote and unhelpful. Supervision of this process ranges from inadequate to nonexistent.

The DOJ concludes that there are likely many more incidents than those it uncovered. For example, procedures do not require reports on use of force against those who are not arrested.

Even Attorney General William Barr, who has ardently backed law enforcement throughout his second go-round at DOJ, condemned the breach of public trust.

“I’ve said many times that being a police officer is the toughest job in America. We owe these public servants our respect and our support,” Barr said in a DOJ statement. “But with this high calling comes a tremendous responsibility to uphold the public trust.  The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement while holding departments accountable that violate this sacred trust.”

The Justice Department documents instances where video or photographic evidence would appear to support the complaint for excessive force. It notes situations where confrontations or flights of suspects might have been avoided had plainclothes officers identified themselves.

Mayor Sarno at a 2016 announcement for an appointment to the CPHB.  It doesn’t seem DOJ found the board very useful. (WMassP&I)

The Community Police Hearing Board (CPHB), which Mayor Domenic Sarno erected via executive order, comes across a mere spectator.  The report highlights the failure of supervisors and the Internal Investigations Unit—which the report savages—to send complaints up the food chain.

“[T]he CPHB receives very few use-of-force investigations to review,” the report states. None of them involved officers of the Narcotics Bureau.

The DOJ’s review of the internal investigation “showed that IIU investigators are not using basic investigative techniques needed to accurately determine if an allegation of excessive force should be sustained. IIU interviews often lack detail and important content.”

Attempts to reach witnesses are lame and reports often never clarify contradictory evidence. It attributes this to a dearth of policies, guidance and training for IIU.

Springfield cops faced minimal discipline for excessive force, the report notes. The DOJ found no discipline against Narcotics Bureau officers for excessive force and little discipline for other misconduct. Between 2013 and 2018, of sustained findings of misconduct, only 11% of allegations involving non-Narcotics officers resulted in discipline. Among those in the Narcotics Bureau the figure was 5%.

On Thursday morning, Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst said Tthe report confirmed what many had long suspected. A culture of excessive force in the police department leaves residents with little recourse.

“These systems that contribute to this brazen culture of policing are perpetuated by the actions and inactions of those in the highest levels of leadership in the police department and extend to those who are responsible for appointing them,” he said in a statement.

In his own statement, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, the chair of Public Safety, called for the implementation of DOJ’s recommendations. He also demanded updates on changes to policy the Council demanded last month.

“The lack of leadership, lack of accountability and the blatant apathy across the board are equally as indefensible as the acts of violence themselves, ” Ramos said.

As for the CPHB, officers told DOJ it lacks sufficient training and background to weigh evidence. (No Narcotics supervisors or officers agreed to submit to interviews). Residents called the CPHB “politicized and ineffective.”

DOJ on Springfield’s CPHB: Meh… (via wikipedia)

In recent years, Sarno has pushed the Council to codify his executively-ordered board. City Solicitor Ed Pikula has told councilors this would show officials the city is serious about reform. However, the report does not suggest DOJ has wed itself to this change. Nor does it bless the current sole commissioner and CPHB setup.

Investigators also note the millions the city has paid out in settlements over the last 15 years. It compares the $5.25 million in Springfield paid out in this period compared to Bridgeport’s $249,000 and Lowell’s $817,000.

Given that the investigatory window only ran from 2013 to 2018, the events reviewed fell during the tenures of Police Commissioners William Fitchett and John Barbieri. The former retired without incident in 2014. Barbieri retired abruptly in 2019 when negotiations to extend his tenure were thought to be ongoing.

The current Commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood, began her tenure thereafter. Yet, she entered office during an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the City Council about the resurrection of the Police Commission that the Control Board had eighty-sixed in 2005.

However that shakes out, it will fall to her to implement and, more importantly enforce, massive changes to Pearl Street. A department spokesperson did not return a request for comment as of posting time.

In a statement, Mayor Sarno said he had just received the report this evening.

“I will be reviewing this document tomorrow with Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood and City Solicitor Attorney Ed Pikula and we will be conducting a press briefing ASAP,” he said.