About a year after a federal investigation found that officers in the Springfield Police Department’s narcotics bureau had engaged in a pattern of excessive force, Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood is replacing the unit with a team focused on investigating violent crime amid an increase in gun offenses in the city.
The new Firearms Investigation Unit will work to get illegal guns off the city’s streets, while police continue pursuing illegal drug sales and trafficking by working with regional, state, and federal law enforcement partners, Clapprood said Sunday.
The police force is also making changes in officer training and accountability, said Clapprood, who is hammering out a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice following the July 2020 report on the narcotics unit.
“Reform is coming,” Clapprood said. “I’m looking to turn the corner and do the best I can, trying to institute these reforms and answer to the City Council and the citizens of Springfield, while trying to keep the officers educated and safe, as well.”
Replacing the narcotics team with a unit focused on violent crimes and gun offenses, she said, was necessary after an increase in gun violence. Police in the city seized 275 illegal firearms in 2020, a record-high figure, and have confiscated 112 weapons so far this year, according to a Police Department statement.
As part of the reorganization, narcotics unit members will be reassigned to other roles, including partnerships with regional, state, and federal law enforcement drug task forces.
One full-time officer will also be assigned to Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s Strategic Action and Focused Enforcement (SAFE) Team, which investigates violent crime.
Drug-trafficking investigations tend to cross county and state lines, requiring the cooperation of law enforcement agencies, Clapprood said. At the municipal community level, police and the courts are also changing how they address people who are struggling with substance use issues, she added, pointing to efforts such as an outreach program overseen by the Hampden County sheriff’s office.
“I’m better suited to investigate the illegal firearms, and turn over a lot of the narcotics information to the [drug] task forces,” Clapprood said.
Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, in a statement released by police Friday, said there has not been one complaint against the narcotics bureau since Clapprood took command two years ago. He commended Clapprood for her efforts to balance public safety and police accountability, which he said “will maximize taking these gun-toting and poison drug-dealing violent repeat offenders off our streets and out of our neighborhoods.”
The decommissioning of the narcotics unit comes about a year after the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the US attorney’s office for Massachusetts found in a two-year investigtion that Springfield’s narcotics officers needlessly escalated encounters with civilians, were too quick to throw punches, and struck people in the face.
The pattern of excessive force violated peoples’ Fourth Amendment rights, according to the report.
Clapprood said the department has implemented stricter use-of-force rules and requires Springfield’s nearly 500 officers to wear body cameras. Clapprood also created an audit unit that reviews footage from the cameras.
Further changes — including making it easier for people to file complaints against police — are expected, she said.
Clapprood said she is meeting weekly with Justice Department officials and hopes to reach a settlement agreement in late September or October.
“Between the command staff’s commitment and dedication, and our work with [the Justice Department], things are going to get better and even more transparent,” Clapprood said. “Once COVID goes away, and we can get out into the public, into the community [and] start speaking to groups of people, they will see all the work that we’ve actually done.”
The 2020 federal report came about a month after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which sparked widespread protests. Local officials, including state Representative Orlando Ramos, called on Springfield police to make changes amid criticism of the department.
Ramos, who is also a city councilor, said Sunday that he is encouraged by the progress made by police, but they must do more to build trust.
“It’s not going to be easy to repair that mistrust that the community has for the Police Department,” Ramos said. “But we are moving in the right direction.”
Ramos said Clapprood and the department need to demonstrate that any officer who violates people’s civil rights will be disciplined without delay.
“Once we start seeing that, then I think the public will begin to trust that the Police Department is holding their officers accountable,” Ramos said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.