A police narcotics unit in Springfield, Massachusetts, regularly uses excessive force on suspects, including punching them in the face, and frequently fails to document the incidents or falsifies reports, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said in a report released Wednesday night.
The Justice Department report found that officers in the Springfield Police Department's Narcotic Bureau "regularly punch subjects in the head and neck area without legal justification," resulting in a "pattern or practice" of unconstitutional excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.
The report also found it was "not uncommon for Narcotics Bureau officers to write false or incomplete narratives that justify their uses of force."
Justice Department investigators cited one instance where an injury report of an arrestee only noted "small cuts to the face." However, pictures of the man "clearly show severe contusions and dark bruising on the right side of his face, a large black eye, a gash on the bridge of his nose, and additional abrasions on the left side of his face and the left side of his nose."
Because of rampant underreporting of use-of-force incidents, the use of vague language to obscure the extent of injuries, and the outright falsification of police reports, the Justice Department concluded that excessive force incidents were likely more widespread than the many violations captured in its report.
And there was little to no discipline for officers involved in those civil rights violations. Because of poor reporting requirements, lax supervisor oversight, and lazy internal affairs reviews, the report found that there was not a single sustained excessive force finding against a member of the narcotics team over the past six years.
"I've said many times that being a police officer is the toughest job in America. We owe these public servants our respect and our support," Attorney General William Barr said in a press release accompanying the report. "But with this high calling comes a tremendous responsibility to uphold the public trust. The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement while holding departments accountable that violate this sacred trust."
Springfield cops, who patrol the third-largest city in Massachusetts, have made headlines in recent years, and not for good reasons.
Last year, 14 Springfield officers were charged for a violent off-duty bar brawl and an ensuing cover-up. The city paid out $885,000 to settle a lawsuit by four men injured in the melee. Five of the officers involved were suspended, but have since been reinstated.
Springfield settled two other excessive force lawsuits last year for $450,000 and $250,000.
In a separate incident last year, a jury convicted another Springfield officer on charges of official misconduct and battery for beating a man.
Local news outlet WAMC also reported last year on an investigation by the Hampden District Attorney Office into two incidents where video evidence appeared to contradict written police reports:
In one, a desk officer grabs a man around the throat and wrestles with him in the lobby of police headquarters. The man says he was disputing a parking ticket and denies doing anything to warrant the violent response.
The prosecutor's office is also investigating the arrest of a Springfield high school student. Security video shows a school resource officer suddenly grab the male student by the neck as they pass each other in a hallway.
In 2017, a longtime Springfield police detective was charged with stealing $400,000 in cash from the department's evidence room. He died of an apparent suicide the day he was scheduled to plead guilty.
The Justice Department's investigation of the Springfield Police Department is notable because it is, so far, the only probe of an entire police department launched by the Justice Department under Trump.
The Obama administration launched a record number of so-called "pattern or practice" investigations into systemic civil rights violations by police departments, including in Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri.
However, the Trump Justice Department, especially under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, backed away from the aggressive use of these investigations. Sessions said he never read the Justice Department's scathing report on civil rights violations by the Chicago Police Department, but he nevertheless said such investigations unfairly maligned whole police departments and improperly used the power of the federal government to coerce municipal governments into court-enforced settlements, called "consent decrees."
U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said in a Justice Department press release that the Springfield Police Department and the city "have fully cooperated with this investigation and have made clear their commitment to genuine reform."