SPRINGFIELD — It was the city’s worst-kept secret, an unspoken understanding between the local narcotics unit and people on the streets they policed.
If you run from the cops, a former narcotics officer with the Springfield Police Department told federal investigators, you “get a beat down.”
It was not just patrol-car rhetoric. Over the course of the past decade, the beatings came fast and fierce, and with such regularity that even the Trump administration — with its well-documented support for forceful police tactics — eventually intervened.
An explosive report released July 8 by the US Department of Justice, which details deep dysfunction within the department, has brought the national conversation on police brutality to the doorstep of this city of 154,000, where issues of crime and poverty have persisted even as recent economic development, including the construction of a billion-dollar downtown casino, has offered the promise of better days.
Initiated in 2018 and focused largely on the department’s narcotics bureau, the investigation paints a portrait of a rogue unit with little oversight, populated by officers who needlessly escalate encounters, levy brutal beatings without legal justification or reprimand, and routinely provide misleading or false arrest reports to cover up the assaults.
Perhaps most striking was the brazenness with which members of the unit carried themselves, with one narcotics detective telling a 15-year-old suspect being questioned about a stolen vehicle that “I could crush your [expletive] skull and [expletive] get away with it” — even as surveillance cameras rolled.
“The brutality was obviously awful to read,” says Christy Lopez, a law professor at Georgetown University and former deputy chief with the Department of Justice who was not involved in the Springfield probe but previously led investigations into troubled police departments in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Ferguson, Mo. “But in some ways, the more abhorrent part was ... the attitude of the police department, which seemed to be ‘Who cares?‘ ”
Against the backdrop of a national movement against police brutality, the report has prompted widespread outrage. Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and his police commissioner have vowed to implement the DOJ’s recommendations, saying the work of reform was underway before the report was released.
But to many in this city, where more than half of residents are Black or Hispanic, the report merely affirmed what has long been known.
Interviews with nearly two dozen residents, attorneys, and city officials — as well as police records and lawsuits reviewed by the Globe — reveal a longstanding pattern of brutality, often against residents of color, that has deeply fractured community-police relations, cost the city millions in legal settlements, and left a trail of damage.
The US Department of Justice “didn’t pick Springfield to make an example of them,” says Matthew Segal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
It was chosen, he said, because it’s “one of the worst police departments in the country.”
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At the moment Michael Ververis regained consciousness, he found himself handcuffed and bleeding from the head, having been choked and dragged across a snowy sidewalk in front of dozens of onlookers.
Ververis had spent the evening of Jan. 8, 2011 with friends in Springfield’s entertainment district. When the outing was over, as he and a co-worker began their drive back to Connecticut, he said, an officer directing traffic near busy Worthington Street — apparently unhappy with how slow the vehicle was moving — hit the back of the car with a flashlight or nightstick, shattering a taillight. The co-worker, who was driving, stopped the car and got out to assess the damage. When the co-worker got back in the car, he rolled down the window on the passenger-side — where Ververis was sitting — and asked the officer for his badge number.
Immediately, Ververis told the Globe, he was set on by officers, who hit him repeatedly through the window before pulling him from the vehicle. At one point, he said, he was placed in a choke-hold, causing him to temporarily lose consciousness.
“Look at what they’re [expletive] doing!” screamed a woman as she filmed the scene from the window of a nearby building.
The video would later be used to help acquit Ververis, who is white, of the charges levied against him that night: assault and battery on an officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct — including a claim that Ververis had reached for an officer’s gun.
“I’m privileged enough to say that I survived, and I got to fight my case,” says Ververis, 32, who eventually received a $175,000 settlement from the city. Others, he said, have “gone through way worse.”
Indeed, the cases outlined in the 28-page Justice Department report do not make for easy reading. There is the 17-year-old punched by an officer as he rode a motorbike past members of the narcotics unit as they made unrelated arrests. And the slight middle-aged man punched in the face during a drug arrest despite not acting aggressively himself.
In various cases, investigators found that those attempting to flee police suffered mightily for it, sometimes with stitches or broken bones.
Among the most disturbing cases included in the report involved two narcotics officers questioning teenage suspects accused of stealing an unmarked police SUV in February 2016. As surveillance cameras captured the exchange, officer Gregg Bigda, who is white, tells a 15-year-old Latino boy that “I’m not hampered by the [expletive] truth because I don’t give a [expletive]. People like you belong in jail. ... I’ll stick a [expletive] kilo of coke in your pocket and put you away for [expletive] 15 years.”
To another teen suspect in the case, Bigda displayed a dirty boot, saying it was stained with the blood of one of the other boys. “That’ll be yours on this shoe,” he said, pointing to his other boot.
“They knew they were on video,” says Howard Friedman, a Boston-based civil rights lawyer who is currently suing the city of Springfield on behalf of another one of the teens, a 14-year-old Latino boy who says he was kicked in the face and spat on by Bigda while handcuffed. “That shows knowledge that they will be protected by their department, no matter how outrageous their conduct is.”
Despite such abuses, the DOJ report found, officers in the unit rarely went punished.
Though department policy requires senior staff commanders to refer any questionable use-of-force incident resulting in prisoner injuries to the Internal Investigations Unit, the DOJ found that between 2013 and 2018, not a single referral was made in cases involving the narcotics unit or the department as a whole. Civilian allegations made to internal affairs also went unpunished; in the past six years, the report noted, not a single excessive force complaint against a narcotics officer has been sustained by the department.
In March, an officer admitted to sufficient facts for a guilty finding after he was charged with assaulting a man who went to police headquarters in 2017 to complain about a parking ticket. The officer wasn’t disciplined, a police spokesman said, but faces a federal civil lawsuit over the confrontation, which was caught on surveillance video.
In another high-profile incident, this one from 2015, several off-duty Springfield officers were accused of attacking four Black men outside Nathan Bill’s Bar and Restaurant following a disagreement inside. During the attack, Paul Cumby, of Chicopee, said he was knocked unconscious after being struck on the head from behind and awoke with a broken leg, dislocated ankle, and four teeth knocked loose. The DOJ report said another man was repeatedly kicked in the head by the off-duty officers.
Cumby settled a suit with the city in 2018, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is prosecuting the case criminally, including accusations that responding officers helped cover up the incident. To date, no officers have been fired.
The misconduct has created problems that extend well beyond the department.
Local prosecutors have struggled to successfully prosecute drug crimes, according to the DOJ report, “in large part [because] they have not been able to rely on testimony from discredited Narcotics Bureau officers.” What’s more, lawsuits brought by citizens alleging police abuse have regularly forced the city to dole out sizable settlements.
Between 2006 and 2019, Springfield spent more than $5.25 million in police misconduct settlements, according to the DOJ. By comparison, Bridgeport, Conn. — a city of similar size — paid just $249,000 for such settlements during the same period, the DOJ said.
The city paid Kissa Owens $1 million, for instance, after her 15-year-old son, Delano Walker Jr., was killed during an encounter with police in 2009. Walker, who was Black, was talking on his phone and walking with two friends when a white officer approached him and told him to get off the phone. When Walker refused, the officer lunged at the teen’s throat, according to testimony in a federal civil suit. As Walker backed away, he stepped into oncoming traffic and was struck and killed.
Even in cases where settlements have been reached, however, officers have oftentimes emerged unscathed.
In a federal civil lawsuit filed in 2014, Justin Douglas, 39, said he was pistol-whipped by Bigda while handcuffed during a 2012 arrest in a West Springfield motel room.
But while the city agreed to pay $60,000 in 2017 to settle the suit, Springfield police never investigated or disciplined the seven officers who were in the motel room that day with Douglas, according to the Justice Department.
“I was wrong,” said Douglas, who pleaded guilty to illegal firearms charges and was sentenced to serve up to 8½ years in prison. “I had those weapons ... I did the time. Well, what about this racist cop, man, lying and falsifying and doing [expletive] to people that’s unjust?
“What about that?”
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In recent weeks, prompted by roiling national debate surrounding policing, Mayor Sarno reallocated $125,000 from the $50.3 million police budget to fund social programs. He has vowed to review the department’s policies on the use of force and asked the city council to grant subpoena power to a civilian board that hears complaints against officers.
But some critics deride the moves as the hollow maneuverings of a mayoral administration that has not only ignored problems within the police department, but actively impeded reform.
In 2017, when then-city council president Orlando Ramos created a 15-member committee to examine police-community relations, the mayor’s office declined to take part; in a letter to Ramos at the time, Sarno called the committee “redundant” and cited the falling crime rate as evidence that the city’s current efforts were working. When members of the committee eventually presented their findings to the mayor — including a survey that found Black and Hispanic residents were far less satisfied with the police department than white residents — “it went completely ignored,” Ramos said.
Though more than half of the department’s patrol officers are Black, Latino, or Asian, 70 percent of supervisors on the force of about 500 are white.
In 2016, meanwhile, after a federal magistrate judge determined the city demonstrated “deliberate indifference” to the risks posed by officers with repeated civilian complaints, Sarno defended the department, telling The Republican newspaper that officers “are dealing with the dregs of society.”
“We’ve always been told by the administration, basically, that there’s nothing wrong with the police department,” said Ramos, who along with other city councilors is currently locked in a contentious battle with the mayor over the organizational structure of the police department. “I’m sick and tired of hearing that ‘we’re already doing that.' It’s obvious right now that we’re not doing enough.”
Currently heading the department is Cheryl Clapprood, a longtime Springfield officer who overcame an early-career scandal — she was convicted of filing a false report in an incident involving a department vehicle — to be named the SPD’s first female commissioner last September.
But Clapprood’s short tenure has been plagued by high-profile controversies.
In April, citing staff shortages due to the pandemic, Clapprood reinstated five of the officers under indictment for covering up the 2015 attack outside Nathan Bill’s bar. Facing backlash and demonstrations over police brutality, Sarno ordered the officers to be suspended again.
Her decision last month to fire a 30-year-old Latina detective for a pro-Black Lives Matter social media post received national media attention, as well as condemnation from some city councilors. And a recent online petition calls her leadership “tone deaf” and “combative” while calling for her removal as commissioner.
To date, it has garnered more than 1,500 signatures.
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Clapprood has vowed to take the corrective measures suggested in the DOJ report, including revamping use-of-force training and internal discipline procedures, and she has announced a new mandate requiring that plainclothes officers wear body cameras. But her public comments have also been tinged with defiance.
During a press conference earlier this month, she downplayed the DOJ investigators’ findings as “not a lot of cases,” and later insisted in an interview with a Springfield radio station that the department isn’t as “loosey-goosey” as the report suggests.
“They’re not talking about nightstick strikes or tasers,” she said. “They’re talking about fists, and they’re talking about take-downs, and they’re talking about people who get hurt on a take-down and may have a scrape or an injury.”
Officer Joseph Gentile, president of the union for Springfield’s patrol officers, praised the narcotics bureau in an interview for doing a “tremendous job,” adding that “we’re happy to do anything we can to help make us a better police department.”
How far the Justice Department will go to ensure a departmental overhaul also remains to be seen.
Previous federal probes of troubled police departments have typically included federally enforced agreements to ensure the implementation of reforms. A federal investigation of police abuses in Ferguson, for instance, mandated a court-appointed monitor to oversee the department for at least five years.
But the July 8 Springfield report included no such agreement, and officials from both the Justice Department and US Attorney’s Office declined to say whether one would be forthcoming.
“We’d like to reach an agreement that shows we voluntarily complied with everything and still make it an enforceable agreement,” said Springfield city solicitor Edward M. Pikula, adding that the city hopes to avoid a lawsuit by the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the legacy of past abuses lives on in victims.
In March 2015, Le’Keisha Brown was on the cusp of earning a criminal justice degree from Springfield Technical Community College when she arrived at a relative’s home to mediate a family dispute.
When she told an officer responding to a call about the dispute that he couldn’t enter her nephews’ home without a warrant, a lawsuit later alleged, Brown, who is Black, was shoved twice by a Black officer, led away in handcuffs, and charged with assault and battery, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
In 2016, a judge found Brown innocent of resisting arrest, and a jury acquitted her of the remaining charges. She also received a $9,000 settlement from the city after a federal judge found that a reasonable jury “could conclude that [Brown] was falsely arrested in violation of her federal civil rights.”
By then, though, the damage had been done.
Though Brown completed her criminal justice studies in 2016, she said her criminal case has continued to affect job searches, and she has never realized her goal of working with juveniles in trouble with the law.
Today, she works as a certified nursing and patient care assistant — the same field she was in when she began studying criminal justice.
More than five years after her brief encounter with the Springfield Police Department, Brown says, “I’m still trying to rebuild my name.”