Department of Justice report notes serious issues in Springfield Narcotics Bureau

July 15, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – The Department of Justice (DOJ) report on the Narcotics Bureau doesn’t mince words even in its first paragraph of the executive summary: “Following a thorough investigation, there is reasonable cause to believe that Narcotics Bureau officers engage in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

The report was released last week and the Sarno Administration released a statement about efforts to address some of the issues brought up by the investigation and conducted a press conference and has pledged to cooperate fully with DOJ.

In the statement, Commissioner Clapprood said that she is “committed to addressing the deficiencies identified by DOJ with changes to the policy, training, and accountability systems within the Narcotics Bureau of Springfield Police Department (SPD) and to SPD as a whole through the adoption of remedies outlined in the report.”

These included: enhancing use of force reporting and review procedures; adopting new use-of-force training; reviewing and revising IIU policies and training; and increasing accountability mechanisms.

In addition, the Narcotics Unit will be required to wear body worn cameras.

For City Councilor Jesse Lederman, the report played into the call for a Police Commission to replace the current Community Police Hearing Board. The city council has voted for the return of a Police Commission.

Lederman wrote in a statement, “Furthermore, it [the report] found that the existing Community Police Hearing Board (CPHB) ‘fails’ to achieve its goals of increasing transparency and accountability as the result of failure 'to equip its members with the training and resources needed to adequately perform these tasks.’ The DOJ further states that the CPHB was viewed as ‘politicized and ineffective’ by the public and perceived as lacking resources and training by officers.”

He added, “That is why I have been a longtime advocate of the installation of a Civilian Police Commission with real authority to increase transparency and accountability in the department’s policies, procedures, hiring, and discipline practices, and to create a fair process for residents and officers to be heard. It’s why I pushed hard for the department to enter the accreditation process and have police policies and procedures evaluated and regularly reviewed by outside professionals. It’s why I joined my colleagues on the city council in support of body cameras, and to push for more funding specifically dedicated to training.”

The DOJ report noted, “This pattern or practice of excessive force is directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies, accountability systems, and training. For example, unlike most other police departments, SPD policies do not require officers to report “hands on” uses 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. 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. Deficiencies within SPD’s broader systems of accountability exacerbate these issues. For example, although SPD policy requires that senior command staff refer to SPD’s Internal Investigations Unit (IIU) any questionable force incident resulting in injury, from 2013 to 2018, command staff did not make any referrals in cases involving the Narcotics Bureau; indeed, not a single such referral was made throughout the entire department. Further, while IIU has investigated some excessive force complaints made by members of the public, its investigations lack critical content needed to determine if an allegation should be sustained. This has resulted in zero sustained findings of excessive force against any Narcotics Bureau officer in the last six years.

“Against this backdrop, Narcotics Bureau officers engage in uses of excessive force without accountability. For example, in October 2018, the United States indicted a veteran Narcotics Bureau sergeant for color of law violations related to his 2016 arrest of two juveniles. The indictment alleges that the sergeant kicked one of the youths in the head, spat on him, and said, ‘welcome to the white man’s world.’ Further, the sergeant allegedly threatened to, among other things, crush one of the youth’s skulls and ‘[expletive deleted] get away with it,’ ‘[expletive deleted] bring the dog back [and] let him [expletive deleted] go after’ a youth, ‘[expletive deleted] kill [one of the youth] in the parking lot,’ charge a youth with a murder and ‘[expletive deleted] make it stick,’ and that he would ‘stick a [expletive deleted] kilo of coke in [one of the youth’s] pocket and put [him] away for [expletive deleted] 15 years.’ The indictment also alleges that during interrogation, the sergeant “pointed to blood on his boot” and told one of the youths that if he lied, the youth’s ‘blood would be on [the sergeant’s] boot next.’ The case is pending.”

The report added, “We appreciate the cooperation and professionalism that city officials, SPD command staff, and many hard-working SPD officers demonstrated throughout our investigation. We understand that SPD officers perform an immense service to the Springfield community that often places them in dangerous situations, and that Narcotics Bureau officers in particular are tasked with serving felony warrants and making arrests of individuals suspected of serious drug and weapons offenses. We hope that everyone in Springfield – city officials, SPD officers, and residents alike – will view this report as an opportunity to positively address failures within the Narcotics Bureau and make policing in Springfield lawful, safer, and more effective.”

Sarno said, “I have the full confidence in Police Commissioner Clapprood and her leadership team to continue to address and implement the changes needed and identified by the DOJ report. Even before the report came out, we had already identified areas of improvements and took action. We continue to work towards gaining state certification and accreditation – a process aimed at providing a thorough evaluation and ensuring standards and the implementation of our body worn camera system just to name a few.”

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