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City that disbanded drug unit settles excessive force case with government

Springfield, Massachusetts, stands now as the first city to reach a consent decree with the Biden administration on use of force.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (CN) — Video of a narcotics officer threatening to kill a Latino teenager and plant drugs on him did not result in the officer's conviction but helped in part to cement a consent decree Wednesday between the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In announcing the settlement this morning outside the Springfield Federal Courthouse, U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins for the District of Massachusetts expressed her office's disappointment that a jury acquitted veteran officer Gregg Bigda last year of criminal charges related to the incident.

“We prosecuted this officer because we believe … [the] conduct that was recorded on video shocked the conscience, so we are disappointed — we are not discouraged,” she told reporters. “We have real hope that the consent decree announced today will resolve our pattern or practice determination and we believe it addresses policy, training and cultural issues that allowed for the underlying incident of our criminal prosecution to ever happen in the first place.”

Resolving a complaint that the government kept under wraps until this morning, the agreement requires each of Springfield's nearly 500 officers to report all uses of force, including punches and kicks, and they will also have duty to intervene to prevent excessive force. Supervisors meanwhile will be tasked with determining whether officers used force appropriately, and the department must create an Excessive Force Investigation Team to evaluate the most serious use of force allegations. 

“These improvements will ensure that officers avoid force whenever possible through the use of de-escalation tactics; that officers know when force can and cannot be used; and that officers report all instances where force is used,” the Justice Department said in a press release.

The announcement follows a scathing report that the Justice Department released in July 2020 about how Springfield's former police narcotics unit frequently used excessive force and often failed to report use of force incidents.

“Specifically, our investigation identified evidence that Narcotics Bureau officers repeatedly punch individuals in the face unnecessarily, in part because they escalate encounters with civilians too quickly, and resort to unreasonable takedown maneuvers that, like head strikes, could reasonably be expected to cause head injuries,” the 28-page report states.

In one instance, four officers allegedly chased a 25-year-old “non-assaultive” man and punched him multiple times, causing him to sustain a broken nose and a lip laceration that required three stitches. Another time, an officer punched a 17-year-old teenager as he was riding on a motorbike past a group of officers, which was “particularly dangerous” because he could have swerved and injured himself or others.

The narcotics unit included 24 plainclothes officers, three sergeants, one lieutenant and one captain who were tasked with carrying out drug-related arrests and search warrants.

In the wake of the 2020 report, Springfield dissolved the unit and replaced it with one dedicated to firearms investigation. Springfield's city council go to work in the wake of the report as well, voting to replace the police commissioner with five unpaid civilians who were not city employees and who would oversee the department, including police discipline.

Endorsed just this past February by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the new police board met for the first time on Monday. Wednesday's settlement earmarks more training and budget resources for the board, as well as the ability to issue subpoenas. And an independent monitor must be appointed to meet with officials and provide biannual progress updates to the community.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the department’s civil rights division, said during Wednesday’s briefing that officials worked on the settlement agreement for more than a year and that “real and lasting change does not happen fast.”

“Implementing requirements of this decree in a way that is truly durable will take years, not months,” Clarke said.

She was tapped to lead the department’s civil rights division by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has taken a different approach from his predecessor, William P. Barr, toward holding law enforcement officials accountable. 

Shortly after taking office last year, Garland rescinded a Trump-era memorandum that altered the process for consent decrees and settlement agreements by requiring they be narrowly tailored to target specific allegations, rather than broad policy objectives that would not typically be attainable through the courts. 

The investigation into Springfield's police department was the only pattern and practice probe launched under former President Donald J. Trump. Meanwhile, Garland has launched four pattern or practice probes at police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., Phoenix, and Mt. Vernon, New York.

The Justice Department on Wednesday submitted the proposed consent decree with the city of Springfield for approval by a federal judge. If approved, the court will hold a hearing four years after the effective date to assess the city’s progress and determine whether the decree can be terminated.

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