Under the Trump administration, the US Department of Justice has largely abandoned its oversight and accountability mandate over local police departments. In fact, since Trump took office more than three years ago, the DOJ has launched only one investigation into unconstitutional policing and systemic misconduct in local law enforcement departments, compared with almost two dozen during the Obama administration. The target? The police force in Springfield, the third-largest city in Massachusetts.
It’s easy to see why after reading the findings of the DOJ probe, revealed last month and detailed in a recent Globe story looking at the history of misconduct at the Springfield Police Department. It’s an appalling collection of blatant police abuse. The DOJ, in its 27-months-long investigation, found that officers in Springfield’s narcotics unit routinely escalated encounters with civilians when there was no need and used excessive force, including punching people in the face and using head strikes, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. What’s more, officers who engaged in these practices faced little to no consequences. One narcotics detective told a 15-year-old suspect being questioned: “I could crush your [expletive] skull and [expletive] get away with it,” as he was captured on camera.
The DOJ concluded it was a pattern “directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies, which fail to require detailed and consistent use-of-force reporting, and accountability systems that do not provide meaningful reviews of uses of force.”
And yet, contrary to what is common practice, the DOJ did not force Springfield Police to sign a consent decree, or a court-mandated agreement, to ensure reform. Instead, the report concluded with four recommendations for the department: to improve procedures for reporting use-of-force incidents; to implement new use-of-force training; to revise policies for internal investigations; and to implement more accountability mechanisms. These remedies, while urgent steps in the right direction, are mere suggestions without mandated enforcement from the feds. Had the DOJ negotiated and entered into a consent decree with the Springfield police, similar to one of the 14 consent decrees signed by the Obama administration, the reform plan would have been supervised and enforced by a federal judge. Instead, any policing reform is left to Springfield police leadership.
The pattern of brazen misconduct and brutality in Springfield is shocking. “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,” the Globe story notes. “And the slight middle-aged man punched in the face during a drug arrest despite not acting aggressively himself.”
Naturally, civilians have sued the department repeatedly. Between 2006 and 2019, the city has paid more than $5.25 million settling police misconduct suits. It’s an outsized cost to Springfield taxpayers.
For her part, Springfield police commissioner Cheryl Clapprood has pledged to collaborate with DOJ and follow the federal recommendations, some of which she has already started to implement. She also said that upon reading the DOJ report, she immediately ordered plainclothes narcotics detectives to wear body cameras.
But a consent decree may still be possible — and may even be in Clapprood’s best interest. According to one review of DOJ’s civil rights cases, “many police chiefs who have been through the process of a DOJ investigation said that the end result was a better police department — with improved policies on critical issues such as use of force, better training of officers, and more advanced information systems that help police executives to know what is going on in the department and manage their employees.” They added that, in some cases, “consent decrees have been instrumental in giving chiefs the authority and the resources to act.”
Indeed, the investigation is exhibit A in why the feds need to get back into the business of consent decrees — in Springfield and across the country. This is an era when DOJ has already retreated from its congressionally mandated duty of policing local police misconduct, a dereliction that has come under bigger scrutiny recently after George Floyd’s death at the hands of four officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, an agency that the DOJ should be probing to find out whether cops there systematically violated civil rights. Reforms may come to the Springfield police, but without an enforceable agreement, there’s a real risk that progress will stall. Given the severity of the findings, Springfield residents deserve a rock-solid assurance for change, and that’s only possible if the federal government polices the police with tough recommendations that have consequences if they’re not met.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.