A two-year investigation into the Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Department (SPD) found that its narcotics officers routinely violate the constitutional rights of citizens by using excessive force without accountability, the Justice Department said July 8.
Officers in the Narcotics Bureau of the SPD “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,” according to the Justice Department’s 28-page report.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) said the bureau violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects the public from the unreasonable use of force by the police.
The investigation into the police department’s practices was first announced on April 13, 2018. It involved interviews with SPD officers, supervisors, command staff, and city officials, as well as an in-depth review of SPD documents, including over 100,000 pages of written policies and procedures, training materials, and internal reports, data, video footage, and investigative files, the DOJ said.
“Our investigation of the Springfield Police Department over the last year revealed chronic issues with the use of force, poor record-keeping on that subject, and repeated failures to impose discipline for officer misconduct,” said U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling.
The DOJ also pointed out that findings from its investigation indicated that the use of excessive force could be department-wide.
“While this investigation focused on the Narcotics Bureau, our conclusions about that Bureau are supported by SPD’s response to its officers’ uses of excessive force generally. In one incident, six off-duty SPD officers not assigned to the Narcotics Bureau fought with four men in a parking lot outside a bar in April 2015,” the DOJ said. “The officers reportedly caused significant injuries to the men, including knocking one unconscious and fracturing his leg and skull, kicking and punching another while he lay on the ground covering his bleeding face, and kicking a third man in the head repeatedly.”
The report said that five of the six off-duty SPD officers were reinstated after the incident.
The DOJ said that the Narcotics Bureau’s routine use of excessive force is “directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies.” Officers within the department aren’t required to report the use of force such as punches and kicks.
Its policies “fail to require detailed and consistent use-of-force reporting,” while accountability systems “do not provide meaningful reviews of uses of force,” the department said.
“This practice enables Narcotics Bureau officers to routinely avoid reporting any use of hands-on force or to submit vague and misleading reports documenting their uses of force,” the report said. “We also found examples where Narcotics Bureau officers falsified reports to disguise or hide their use of force. Supervisors fail to effectively review uses of force that Narcotics Bureau officers do report.”
It noted that from 2013 to 2018, no referrals were made to the Internal Investigations Unit, although supervisors are required to report “any questionable force incident resulting in injury.”
Lelling and Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General of the department’s civil rights division, said in a letter to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno that the DOJ hopes to continue working with the City and SPD to “remedy the pattern or practice of conduct” identified in the investigation.
This will ensure that Springfield can be “safer, lawful, and more effective,” they wrote.