The police commissioner in Springfield, Massachusetts said a federal investigation of possible civil rights abuses by narcotics officers could advance efforts to reform the police department.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the existence of the federal investigation was revealed, Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri said he hopes the outcome will be a set of recommendations from the federal authorities that improve police department policies and increase public trust.
"I definitely view this as potentially a good thing for the department to make it a better, more transparent department, with much more efficient rules and regulations and more community trust," Barbieri said.
He told the Springfield City Council Public Safety Committee the department will fully cooperate with the investigation.
"If there are weaknesses, or flaws, or even tragic faults we want to be aware of them and rectify them and get the best policies and the best people in the right places," Barbieri said.
City officials were informed of the investigation on April 13th at a meeting with Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, and Steven Rosenbaum, chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. The meeting was revealed in a press release issued late in the day by the office of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.
According to the press release, the investigation is examining the narcotics unit to determine if officers “engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Constitution.”
The investigation was prompted by “public reports” and not by a complaint from an individual or group, according to city officials. It is not known if the probe is focused on a specific period of time.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department in Washington declined to comment.
Barbieri said there has been no contact from the Justice Department since the April 13th meeting.
The narcotics unit was the source of a scandal two years ago when detective Gregg Bigda during an interrogation of two teenagers threatened to kill one and plant drug evidence on the other. When a video recording of the interrogation emerged it caused prosecutors to abandon several drug cases where Bigda was to have testified.
Barbieri became commissioner in 2014 with a goal to make the police department more proactive in preventing crime and eliminate what was described as a “warrior mentality.”
"I am not happy with the policies and procedures that existed before I took over the department and we've tried to work on getting the most modern professional policies and procedures for our men and women at the department," Barbieri told the committee.
He said the reform efforts have been slowed by a rash of retirements in the senior ranks of the police department.
" It has been a struggle," conceded Barbieri.
City Council Public Safety Committee Chairman Justin Hurst said there is a “large population” who want to see reforms in the Springfield Police Department.
" As long as its a transparent process and the public is made aware of what is happening every step of the way, I don't have a problem with the Department of Justice coming in," Hurst said.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula told the committee the city has hired for $129,000 a consultant to assess the police department’s Internal Investigations Unit.
"When this is over, I think the public will be able to have a high level of confidence that there is integrity in our policies around the internal investigating unit and disciplinary process," Pikula said.
Last year, Springfield police officers had about 280,000 interactions with the public, or what are known as “calls for service.” There were about 4,500 arrests. There were 80 citizen complaints filed about the conduct of police officers, a very small percentage, according to Pikula.