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Justice Department Finds 'Pattern' Of Excessive Force In Springfield Narcotics Bureau

the front door of Springfield Police Headquarters
Springfield Polcie Department Headquarters

The U.S. Justice Department has identified what it calls a “pattern” of excessive force in the Springfield Police Department’s Narcotics Bureau. 

As part of an investigation, the Justice Department says it reviewed over 100,000 pages of police department policies and procedures, and interviewed city police officers, officials, activists, and community members. In the findings released Wednesday night, the Justice Department says the Narcotics Bureau violated the Fourth Amendment in a consistent use of excessive force directly attributed to “systemic deficiencies in policies.” It adds that the Bureau consistently failed to adequately report and review incidents where force was used.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General William Barr says, "The [Justice] Department will work with the City of Springfield and the Police Department to ensure that the police officers and people of Springfield get the law enforcement agency they deserve, one that effectively and constitutionally stops violent crime and narcotics trafficking.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno held a press conference with Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood Thursday in response to the report. Sarno called the report’s findings disturbing and disappointing. The mayor says the city looks forward to working with Lelling to implement the recommended changes.

"No one is above the law including police officers," said Sarno. 

A transcript of WAMC's interview with U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling is below.

WAMC's Jim Levulis: Why did the Justice Department launch an investigation into the Narcotics Bureau of the Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department?

Lelling: Well, this issue first came up a few years ago, meaning that we were receiving reports that there were chronic issues in the Narcotics Bureau, leading to civil suits, some criminal actions and citizen complaints about the conduct of the officers in that unit. And so what happens is, there is a section at the Justice Department in Washington, in the Civil Rights Division, and they work with us to look at police departments to see whether there's enough of an apparent pattern of problems that we should get involved. And that's basically what happened here.

So what did your two year investigation look at and what did it uncover?

What these kinds of investigations do is, we try to work with the police department and usually the police departments are pretty cooperative. And what that means is our lawyers, start looking into the files of the police department to look at what citizen complaints have been lodged. What internal discipline of officers has happened? How does the internal affairs process work? If there are allegations against officers, and those allegations are corroborated, is there in fact discipline? Is there in fact real punishment of those officers to deter them in the future? What's the training like for those officers on use of force in a given situation? What kind of reporting do those officers have to do? If they use force when they're arresting someone, do they have to report that up the chain? Things like that. And so we did all of that. And as you can see, in the report that we drafted and released yesterday, there were problems in the Springfield Narcotics Unit, sort of from top to bottom. And what I mean there is, there were credible allegations that members of the Narcotics Bureau were using too much force when they were arresting people on the street, that that use of force was not being properly reported up the chain. And in those rare instances where it looked like force had been misused, there was no real sanction forthcoming. And so what our report does is try to lay those things out and recommend some remedies for those kinds of problems.

And how was this segment of the Springfield Police Department able to act with such latitude as you just laid out?

Well, I think what happens is that, like any big organization, and urban police departments are really just big organizations. They have a certain, a certain internal culture. And it seems to me that at some point along the line, the culture in the Narcotics Bureau at the Springfield Police Department became a little bit problematic, either because there wasn't enough oversight or there wasn't enough training, or whatever it is. But it appears that that particular unit of the police department began to do whatever it wanted to do out on the street over time. And there wasn't enough of a corrective within the department. There wasn't enough of a sanction. On the one hand- First, there wasn't enough oversight for what they're actually doing. And two even with superiors, even when superiors in the department realized what they were doing, there was not enough of a sanction for that behavior and so they never stopped. And it's difficult to root out that kind of culture and change it. But that's what we try and do with these kinds of investigations, what we call these police pattern and practice cases. Part of it is inducing the police department to change its internal culture, for how it deals with problematic officers and reports of the misuse of force.

Attorney Lelling, the report says there are probably even more such incidents than your office substantiated, How come?

Because what we found was that the quality of the reporting of force incidents in the department was really weak. There were certain categories of force that didn't need to be reported at all. And ones that were reported, either the reporting minimized the nature of what the officer had actually done, or left key things out. And what we found in certain instances, was that when we compared the internal reports going up the change, chain in the police department with independent evidence of what happened during that incident, they did not jibe. The reporting going up the chain and the police department minimized certain conduct or omitted certain conduct. And so that gave us the sense over time, that there was probably even more than what we were seeing when we dug through the police department's files. Now, again, I should reiterate Springfield Police Department management has actually been very cooperative with us. They concede some of these problems and they've already taken steps to try and reform them. So I think going forward, this will work itself out. But it's going to take some, it's going to take some doing, you can't just turn a big organization like that on a dime. It takes some real spadework to try and fix the internal procedures that they follow and, and keep up officer morale if you can, while that is happening, especially with events nationwide these days. And so it's a big task, but I think the police department is willing, and I think it'll actually happen.

What are some of those reforms that are being taken?

Well, I think they need to resolve- They need to repair some of the, the internal processes for reporting of force, it needs to be more strict. When an officer lays hands on someone, or uses a device, say spray, or a baton, or uses a gun- All of that needs to be reported. There needs to be a culture of reporting it in detail. There needs to be a culture of reporting it accurately. They need refresher training on the application of force, when force can be used. They probably need to fix up their processing of citizen complaints, how quickly those are responded to who, ` deals with them. I think the internal affairs department probably needs to be beefed up. These are all common reforms and these kinds of cases. And when I'm describing here is what the discussion is going to be over the next few months between the lawyers in my office and lawyers from DC, on the one hand, and lawyers for the, for the city of Springfield, on the other. These are the kinds of things that they will hammer out and try to figure out on a nuts, nuts and bolts level, how to fix them.

So who will be in charge of ensuring that the Springfield police department is reforming its practices?

Well, we'll see these things vary, and it's usually a point of negotiation. So sometimes the Department of Justice settles these kinds of cases with a police department and it involves the use of, what we call a monitor, an outside person who is sometimes paid for by the police department, or by the government, or a combination of the two. And that outside monitor constantly reviews what the police department is doing, and reports back to the Justice Department to make sure reforms are happening. Other settlements do not involve a monitor, they involve reporting by the police department itself to the Department of Justice on its progress. Often this involves quarterly meetings, that sort of thing- Between Justice Department lawyers and the police department, to keep tabs on what's going on. But, but again, that'll be a point of negotiation here. As the two sides try and reach an agreement about how best to reform how the Springfield PD conducts itself.

And finally, you mentioned the nationwide climate as it relates to policing. This report predates the latest round of national protests following the death of George Floyd. But it's certainly in line with dynamics that protesters are calling out, is this report indicative of a larger problem?

Well, I think that nationwide, most police departments are doing it right. Because of the nature of the job, meaning it's a violent, unpredictable job for police on the street. You will have the occasional incidents are not handled as they should be. The job of the Justice Department is to differentiate between police departments that overall are doing great, but there was just one problematic incident. And the police departments that have more of a widespread and chronic problem. You have to distinguish between the two. And you want to only be looking at the departments that have a chronic problem, and it seemed to us that Springfield did. I think that this case is a good example of something, which is that the Justice Department has tools to try and prompt policing reform. Like there's a way to do this. When we open these investigations, we bring in policing experts from around the country to help us assess what we're looking at, you know, we come up with a set of reforms that make sense from a policing perspective and will keep the public safer. I'm contrasting this with sort of generalized reflexive calls to defund police departments, which as I said in the past, I think is deeply misguided. You don't want to just lop off a chunk of police department's budget that just makes it worse. If anything, our urban police departments need more money, so you can invest more in training, and in support for these officers on the street, and in monitoring of what those officers are doing-That's what will improve public safety. And so you see this nationwide discussion these days of police reform, what to do with modern policing. I agree that reform and accountability are a good thing, you want those things. But you got to be smart about how you do it. The more you politicize the issue, the more problematic some of the proposed solutions become, in my experience, and I have a lot of experience in this area. When you go to police departments, and you say, "Hey, we'd like you to do more training." The response is not negative, they're happy to do the training. Sometimes there's a cost issue, like they need to be able to pay for it. But rarely do I get the response from police in large urban departments, that they are opposed to additional training or additional equipment or even to additional accountability. And so hopefully, that's what we'll see here. The Springfield PD has been pretty cooperative with us and I think that will continue and if it does, I think you'll see a result that is good for the city of Springfield. I think things will improve, relationships between the public and the police will improve, and you'll see less problematic uses of force.

So you mentioned that you're supportive of reforms just on a broad scale as it relates to policing. I know some of the calls have been seeing if there are other agencies, other types of organizations that could handle things that typically police officers now handle. Whether that be calls regarding to mental illness, homelessness, that sort of thing. Would you support those?

I think ideally, you'd support both. And what I mean by that, is assuming you have the funding, we should be beefing up addiction programs, you should be beefing up mental health programs, other social services type programs. I would not do that at the expense of the police. I think one of the issues you have with modern policing. One of the things that's always been hard, I guess about being a police officer, is that you are called upon to wear many hats in a given situation. Police officers respond to calls involving addicts all the time, they respond to domestic violence calls all the time, they encounter people who are mentally ill all the time. And they have to have some training and how to deal with those situations, because this will always happen in urban policing. And so I think you need to support officers and train officers, who inevitably are going to be called upon to deal with people in distress, either because of addiction issues, mental health issues, or whatever it is. And so I think you'd see both. I wouldn't take money away from the police to put it into funding for social services. I wouldn't do that. Because at the end of the day, modern policing is a social service. There's a reason why community policing works. There's a reason why people like seeing the same officer in their neighborhood every day. In fact, the interesting statistic that you don't see these days, even in African American communities, overwhelmingly, overwhelming majorities support and approve of their local police. That's why community policing works. Those local police have to wear a lot of hats, like I said. Sure they're chasing down bad guys, but they're also breaking up disputes on the street, they're, they're dealing with people who are addicted, they're dealing with people in mental health crises or dealing with domestic squabbles, all these things. And so I think you need support and training and funding for your police to effectively deal with that every day. And that's what I'd like to see, not taking away money from the police, who are usually the first responders in a given situation. So you can have mental health counseling. Those people are not first responders. Mental health counseling, ideally would be available to everybody. But the first person to encounter the person in crisis with a serious mental health issue is probably a police officer. And you want that person trained in how to handle that situation.

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