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Justice Department, Springfield officials reach settlement on police use-of-force practices

Paul Tuthill
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads the Civil Rights Division, announces a settlement and proposed consent decree with the city of Springfield, Massachusetts on police reforms. Also at the news conference from l-r: Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachel Rollins, Clarke, and Springfield Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood.

Proposed consent decree calls for two years of oversight of the police department.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Springfield, Massachusetts have reached a detailed agreement to reform the city’s police department.

Almost two years after investigators for the Department of Justice reported that members of the Springfield Police Department’s former narcotics unit were found to have routinely used excessive force including punching people, sweeping reforms have been agreed to, announced Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

“The pattern or practice of unlawful conduct eroded the public’s trust and undermined the police department’s ability to fight crime,” Clarke said.

Federal authorities and city officials signed a 69-page settlement agreement at the U.S. Courthouse in Springfield Wednesday. It details changes that must be made to the department’s use-of-force policies, officer training, supervision, and accountability.

“We are hopeful about rebuilding trust between the Springfield Police Department and the communities it serves and we look forward to working with the city and the police department toward our shared goal of constitutional effective policing,” Clarke said.

A federal judge will be asked to approve the settlement as a court-enforced consent decree. An independent monitor will be assigned to ensure the police department complies with all the terms of the agreement. The monitor, whose salary will be paid by the city, will oversee the implementation of the reforms for at least the next two years.

Among the major changes that will be required: All use-of-force including punches and kicks must be reported; officers will have a “duty to intervene” to prevent use of excessive force; supervisors must closely scrutinize the use of force; a new force investigation team will be created to evaluate the most serious uses of force.

Some reforms, such as a body-worn camera program, have already been implemented. Clarke said the agreement “buttresses” the newly-created civilian board that met for the first time this week and is responsible for disciplining police officers for misconduct.

“And we are pleased Springfield has already embraced community oversight through the creation of the Board of Police Commissioners,” Clarke said.

While City Hall is on board with the DOJ agreement, implementing all the reforms called for in the settlement will require collective bargaining agreements with the city’s two police unions, confirmed Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood.

“They are in talks now,” Clapprood said. “They know what some of my priorities are and I explained to them these make sense to me to make us a better police department and do not hurt them.”

In addition to negotiating the police reforms with city officials over the course of 14 months, federal authorities sought and received input from community members including the Springfield chapter of the NAACP. U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins said that outreach will continue as the reforms are implemented.

“I want to promise that as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts that, first of all, I understand our district is bigger than just Boston, and I will be out in Springfield to assist with the hard work that needs to be happening with our community and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Superintendent and the mayor going forward,” Rollins said.

State Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat, was a connection between the Justice Department officials and the city’s Black community during the police reform negotiations. He praised the settlement but cautioned there is still much work left to improve police-community relations.

“The key is explaining exactly the steps in the decree,” Williams said adding, “Hopefully, we’re moving in the right direction, a good first step.”

The proposed consent decree for reforming the Springfield Police Department is the first undertaken by the Biden administration. The investigation that led to it was initiated during the Trump administration. It was the only so-called “pattern-or-practice” investigation of local law enforcement launched by the DOJ while Trump was in office.

The Biden administration has initiated four such investigations of police departments in Louisville, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.