Police misconduct in central Massachusetts draws federal crackdown | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Police misconduct in central Massachusetts draws federal crackdown

The second-largest city in New England has racked up several dozen settlements for police misconduct in recent years.

BOSTON (CN) — Just months after the Justice Department concluded a widespread investigation of police brutality in the Bay State’s third-largest city, Springfield, it opened a new one Tuesday in its second-largest city, Worcester.

In addition to studying what it called a pattern or practice of excessive force by Worcester cops, the department said Tuesday it will investigate whether there has been discriminatory enforcement based on race and sex. Worcester, with just over 200,000 people, is roughly triangulated with the three largest cities in New England, with Boston and Springfield to the east and west, and Providence, Rhode Island, to the south.

“We find significant justification to investigate” whether the problem is limited to a few bad cops or amounts to a systemic issue within the department, said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Complaints against the department have been longstanding, and at least 210 people have signed a public petition to have the DOJ investigate it. The petition notes that Worcester settled 27 police misconduct lawsuits for a total of $4 million between 2010 and 2020, with another 15 cases still pending.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner described the department as having “a culture of impunity” in which officers can “get away with virtually anything.”

Of the city’s 100 highest-paid employees, according to a recent study, 92 work for the police department, and that includes 10 cops who are on “last-chance” agreements with the city due to evidence of crimes or other misconduct. All 10 accused officers are among the top 6% of earners among city employees.

In 2018 Hector Pineiro, a civil rights lawyer, accused Worcester officers of regularly beating people up, conducting illegal searches and fabricating evidence. When the local Telegram & Gazette newspaper requested police records to investigate, the department fought the request for three years, resulting in a court order requiring it to pay the newspaper more than $100,000 in legal fees and $5,000 in punitive damages. 

Earlier this year the department was hit by a lawsuit claiming that police arrested Dana Gaul for murder, even though witnesses described the perpetrator as a thin white man who was about 5’7” tall. Gaul is Black, weights 200 pounds and is 5-foot-10, and his DNA didn’t match anything found at the scene of the stabbing.

“Plaintiff is a Black man, and but for his race, defendants would not have targeted him for unlawful arrest, imprisonment, and/or malicious prosecution based on the flimsy evidence,” the lawsuit claims.

Worcester ranks in the worst 10 communities in Massachusetts for violent crime, with an average of 517 incidents per 100,000 people.

Police “have a challenging job of ensuring the safety of the Worcester community,” U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins for the District of Massachusetts said. “This often means responding to or encountering tense and at times dangerous conflicts and situations. … The purpose of this civil investigation is to determine — through objective and thorough examination — whether or not there is an overall pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.

“This is the beginning of the process. We will go where the facts take us. You will hear from me at the end of the investigation, irrespective of outcome. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that policing in Worcester is constitutional, safe, and effective all while the civil rights of their residents remain intact.”

The DOJ’s earlier case in Springfield resulted in a consent decree requiring the city’s nearly 500 officers to report all uses of force, including punches and kicks, and to intervene to prevent excessive force by other officers. The department must also create an Excessive Force Investigation Team.

The decree followed a scathing report by the DOJ in July 2020 that outlined how the narcotics unit frequently engaged in brutality and failed to report it, which led to the unit being disbanded.

“Specifically, our investigation identified evidence that Narcotics Bureau officers repeatedly punch individuals in the face unnecessarily … and resort to unreasonable takedown maneuvers that … could reasonably be expected to cause head injuries,” the report stated.

In the wake of the report, Springfield's city council replaced the police commissioner with five unpaid civilians who oversee the department, including police discipline.

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