The only Justice Department probe of a police department since President Donald Trump took office has found that narcotics unit officers in Springfield, Massachusetts, “repeatedly punch individuals in the face unnecessarily” and use “excessive force without accountability.”
According to a 28-page report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the officers did so “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 Justice Department investigation, based on a review of more than 114,000 pages of Springfield Police Department files and numerous interviews, found there was reasonable cause to believe that Springfield narcotics unit officers engage “in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Under former President Barack Obama, the Justice Department investigated a number of police departments that engaged in unconstitutional policing. But the Trump administration has almost entirely abandoned broader investigations of policing practices. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions believed that probing unconstitutional conduct by police departments hurt officer morale, and Attorney General William Barr has continued DOJ’s pattern of avoiding investigations that identify patterns of abuse and broader problems within police department cultures.
The Springfield investigation, first announced in April 2018, found a number of incidents of “untruthful reporting” by officers, which DOJ said “indicate that it is not uncommon for Narcotics Bureau officers to write false or incomplete narratives that justify their uses of force.”
In one instance, involving a suspect identified as F.D., two narcotics bureau officers ― including a supervisor ― claimed that they had pulled F.D. out of the car after he fled from their unidentified police vehicle. But that wasn’t the whole story.
According to the Justice Department investigation:
One officer’s report says F.D. was “placed” on the ground and another officer’s report states that F.D. was “escorted” to the ground. But photos of the abrasions to F.D.’s face demonstrate the use of serious force and multiple points of impact including: the left side of his forehead, the right side of his forehead, and his cheek. F.D. reported in an interview that he was kicked in the face and upper body area 10-12 times, with multiple officers taking turns kicking him. Regardless of whether these injuries were caused by an aggressive takedown or direct kicks to the head, the prisoner injury report narratives do not indicate that any such force was necessary. None of the officer reports state that F.D. resisted arrest or was combative, and this is further supported by the fact that he was not arrested for resisting arrest or assault and battery of a police officer. According to documents, 12 officers were listed as involved with the arrest and four officers completed prisoner injury report narratives, all arising from an incident that began when F.D. failed to stop because he did not know he was being chased by officers.
Months after the Justice Department pattern-or-practice investigation began, two Springfield officers were charged with federal crimes for beating and spitting on two Latino teens during a 2016 arrest. “Welcome to the white man’s world,” an officer said after spitting on one of the teens.
In a press release announcing the results of the pattern-or-practice investigation, Barr said that “being a police officer is the toughest job in America” and that officers were owed respect and support.
“But with this high calling comes a tremendous responsibility to uphold the public trust,” Barr said, adding that DOJ “is committed to supporting our law enforcement while holding departments accountable that violate this sacred trust.”
Barr said 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.”
U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said that recent events illustrated it was “crucial that our urban police departments keep the trust of their communities and ensure accountability for officer misconduct.”
“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,” Lelling said. “That said, the department and the City of Springfield have fully cooperated with this investigation and have made clear their commitment to genuine reform. We look forward to working with them to make Springfield a safer place.”
Read the results of the investigation below.