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Justice Department: Springfield Police Narcotics Bureau Regularly Used Excessive Force

SPRINGFIELD (CBS) – The Justice Department says an investigation has revealed "reasonable cause" to believe the Springfield Police Department's Narcotics Bureau regularly used excessive force, it announced Wednesday.

"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 Justice Department said the bureau violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects the public from the unreasonable use of force by the police.

The Justice Department's 28-page report said, "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."

Read the Justice Department's full report

The Justice Department said that while the investigation focused on the Narcotics Department, there were indications that the problem was 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 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."

After the incident, the report said, five out of six of the officers were reinstated.

The Justice Department report also said of the incident, "The alleged beating of civilians outside a bar and alleged willingness of officers to cover up fellow officers' misconduct demonstrate accountability lapses within the Department."

In fact, unlike most police departments, Springfield doesn't require officers to report the use of force such as punches and kicks.

"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 Justice Department's 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."

The report noted that while supervisors must report "any questionable force incident resulting in injury," to the Internal Investigations Unit, no referrals were made for the Narcotics Unit from 2013-2018. The report also said the Internal Investigations Unit investigations lacked "critical content needed to determine if an allegation should be sustained."

The mayor of Springfield called the changes "disturbing and disappointing," and has promised changes in the department. The police commissioner has said she has already started reforming the department but recognizes more work needs to be done. The Springfield Police Department launched a body camera program in June. The Department of Justice is recommending a number of changes for the department.

In the course of its investigation, the Justice Department conducted an in-depth review of SPD documents, including more than 100,000 pages of written policies and procedures, training materials, and internal reports, data, video footage, and investigative files. Justice Department attorneys and investigators also conducted interviews with Springfield police officers, supervisors and command staff and city officials, and met with community members and local advocates.

The Justice Department said the Springfield Police Department and the town of Springfield cooperated with the investigation.

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