Narcotics police officers in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield routinely use excessive force by punching people in the face unnecessarily during arrests and other encounters and face no discipline for their misconduct, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found.
The investigation by the agency’s Civil Rights Division found that the Springfield Police Department’s Narcotics Bureau, a group of plainclothes officers who arrest drug suspects, “engage in a pattern or practice of excessive force” in violation of the Constitution without accountability, according to a report released late Wednesday.
Officers in the Narcotics Bureau use force “impulsively rather than tactically,” regularly resorting to blows to the head to gain compliance when the person isn’t a physical threat without attempting other less serious uses of force, investigators found. Despite that, there have been no sustained findings of excessive force against a narcotics bureau officer in the last six years, investigators said.
In one case, an officer punched a 17-year-old as he rode a motorbike past a group of officers making arrests, investigators said. In another instance, an officer struck a 22-year-old man in the face after a foot pursuit even though the man didn’t pose a physical threat.
“These incidents are merely examples and are not atypical within the Narcotics Bureau. We found multiple incidents in which officers used head strikes following a pursuit, even when officer reports suggest the subject was already subdued,” investigators wrote.
“Tellingly, a former Narcotics Bureau officer reported that people know that if you mess with the SPD or try to run, you ‘get a beat down,’” they wrote.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said they will continue working with federal officials to address the problems in the department. Clapprood also ordered Narcotics Bureau officers to wear body cameras.
“Police officers have a very dangerous job but this is very disturbing and disappointing because the report identifies serious issues that must be addressed,” Sarno said in an emailed statement.
The report comes amid heightened scrutiny of police use of force and calls for harsher punishments for police misconduct in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd’s death set off nationwide protests and calls for police reforms.
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said “recent events” show that it’s crucial for police departments “to 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,” he said in an emailed statement.
City officials cooperated with the investigation and “have made clear their commitment to genuine reform,” Lelling said.
The department has already begun implementing a number of remedial measures, officials said.
Nineteen percent of the 84 reports of injury from the narcotics officers filed between 2013 and 2019 were caused by punches to the head, according to the report. Another 8% of people received head injuries from a different type of strike, investigators said. Such force was unreasonable in a “significant number” of those cases, they said.
Investigators found that the police department doesn’t require officers to report things like punches and kicks, allowing officers to keep secret such interactions or submit vague or misleading reports. Investigators said some officers falsified reports to hide excessive force and supervisors don’t appropriately review incidents that are reported.
Senior command staff are required to refer any questionable force incidents resulting in injury to the department’s Internal Investigations Unit, but never did for narcotics officers between 2013 and 2018, investigators found. The investigations unit probed some excessive force complaints brought by members of the public, but investigators don’t use “basic investigative techniques needed to accurately determine if an allegation of excessive force should be sustained,” the report says.
“Against this backdrop, Narcotics Bureau officers engage in uses of excessive force without accountability,” investigators wrote.
Springfield City Councilor Orlando Ramos said he was “appalled and extremely disgusted” by the investigation’s findings.
“The lack of leadership, lack of accountability and the blatant apathy across the board are equally as indefensible as the acts of violence themselves,” he said in an emailed statement. “ Every single person inside or outside the department who participated, aided or otherwise stood complacent should be ashamed of themselves!”