SPD Blues: Springfield Police Department’s long history of misconduct, civil rights violations & lawsuits

SPD Blues: Springfield Police Department’s long history of misconduct, civil rights violations & lawsuits

First of a three-part series.

SPRINGFIELD — Carlos Palacio was 16 and home alone one night with his mother when a group of city narcotics officers burst through the door of their Palmyra Street apartment in Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood.

He recalls hearing a loud noise, followed by a cracking sound, and then seeing the light in the kitchen just go out.

“And, then, suddenly, when I turned around, I see one of the cops pointing a gun at my mother’s face,” Palacio remembers. “They came in without a warrant or anything.”

Now 26, Palacio says there is lingering trauma from that night in 2010 when undercover detectives from the Springfield Police Department’s narcotics unit forced their way into his family’s home, handcuffed him and his mother, demanding they tell where the drugs were hidden.

When his father arrived home from work, he was thrown against a wall and handcuffed. The family members remained cuffed and were kept separate while police searched their apartment and the apartment upstairs over the course of more than two hours.

The police brought in a drug-sniffing dog to aid in the search.

Each time Palacio or his parents tried to ask officers a question, the response was an immediate and forceful: “Shut up,” he says. Each time, they they were told they did not have the right to speak.

“And while we were sitting there handcuffed, they were sitting in our kitchen, laughing and making jokes,” Palacio says.

There were no drugs. The dog could not detect the slightest whiff of any narcotics. Not in the Palacio family’s apartment. Not in the apartment upstairs. The police packed up, took off the handcuffs and left as if nothing had happened.

The reason for the search, as best they could learn later, was an anonymous tip to police that “a suspicious package” had been delivered to the Palacio apartment the day before.

The family maintains there was no warrant, the officers would not identify themselves and even took steps to conceal their badges. No police reports nor log entries even acknowledged there had been a search until an incident report was penned two months later.

In 2013, Palacio, his father Carlos A. Palacio, and his mother, Sidney Gaviria Orrego, sued the city, the police commissioner and four unidentified officers known in court documents only as John Does 1 through 4.

His parents would accept the city’s offer of $30,000 to settle the lawsuit out of court, a decision Palacio did not agree with at the time. He wanted the case to go to trial to demonstrate to the public how a group of police officers terrorized his family.

Before the settlement was reached, the names of the John Doe officers who burst into their apartment would come up as part of the pre-trial maneuvering prior to the settlement. One of them was narcotics detective Gregg Bidga.

Eight years later Bidga would be facing federal charges for civil rights violations, accused of roughing up two teens in handcuffs and with threatening to plant drug evidence on another, telling the youth he would send him to prison for drug trafficking.

Bidga was also at the center of a two-year US Department of Justice investigation that found the Springfield narcotics unit for years had operated in a reckless, rogue fashion, where cowboy detectives routinely violated the civil rights of drug suspects without the the slightest concern being caught or reprimanded.

Palacio remembered Bigda’s name from his family’s encounter a decade ago as the news of the wayward detective played out over the last few years.

Sitting in his parents home in Sixteen Acres for a recent interview, he wondered how things would have been different if the city had decided in 2010 to change how the police operated, rather than cutting a check for $30,000 to keep the Colombian family quiet.

“The other cases that happened after us wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “But they really didn’t do anything when they found out about our case… They tried to hide the fact that they screwed up.”

The Department of Justice’s report, issued in July offered a scathing look at the Springfield Police Department. Even before it was issued, the Police Department faced recurring allegations of misconduct, brutality and civil rights violations, all of them clinging to the department like “an unacknowledged elephant in the room.”

Stepping back and viewing the department through the thread of history over the past last three decades and repeated instances of misconduct followed by lawsuits and, then, pledges of reform, the conclusions reached in the federal report both surprise and fail to surprise simultaneously.

It was U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Robertson who spoke of the department’s “unacknowledged elephant” during an October 2016 hearing to determine if trial should proceed in a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the police involving the 2012 narcotics arrest of a man in a West Springfield motel who claimed he’d been beaten. One of the defendants in the lawsuit was Bigda, and the hearing coincided with the public revelations about his being at the center of a separate and unrelated misconduct case involving the department.

In a video where he interrogated a 15-year-old Latino boy accused of stealing an unmarked police car in February 2016, Bigda is seen threatening to plant drug evidence on the boy and to lie under oath in order to send him to prison for 15 years on trumped-up charges

The one case had nothing to do with the other, but Robertson did not overlook Bigda’s involvement in both cases. Also catching her eye was how Bigda and his co-defendant fellow officers had been previously named in 131 separate civilian complaints for misconduct.

“It is hard for me to conclude that it’s completely irrelevant to this case,” the judge would say at the time.

The “elephant” was finally acknowledged publicly this summer with the release of the DOJ report. The report documented actions by narcotics detectives that were so egregious they rose to the level of possible federal civil rights charges.

The 28-page report, the result of a two-year investigation, looked at the conduct of the department’s narcotics unit between 2013 and 2018. It found numerous instances in which officers filed false reports, in which supervisors looked the other way and failed to follow department policy, and in which suspects would be routinely and unnecessarily beaten with punches, kicks and blows to the head.

The investigation was launched in April 2018 amid the community outcry over what would come to be known as “the Bigda situation.”

Springfield Police

In a screen shot from video recorded at the Palmer police station on Feb. 27, 2016, Springfield Detective Gregg A. Bigda, left, and Detective Luke Cournoyer question a juvenile accused of stealing an undercover narcotics unit vehicle. The Republican has pixelated part of the image to protect the boy’s identity.

Bigda is suspended from duty without pay while he awaits trial in federal court for violating the civil rights of the three Latino boys charged with stealing an unmarked cruiser in February, 2016. He is accused of setting a police dog on one of the teens and kicking two others while they were already in handcuffs. He reportedly spat on one while yelling “welcome to white town.”

During an interrogation at the Palmer police station, Bigda is also reported to have threatened to beat up one teen and to plant a kilo of cocaine in the pocket of another and send him to prison for 15 years.

The civil rights trial in Bigda’s case is scheduled to begin in December.

The Department of Justice report was issued at the same time cities across the country were seeing protests about police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. It prompted Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood and members of the City Council to all vow sweeping changes in how the Police Department operates.

Since then, new policies are being put in place, there is a closer examination of how the department works, and a bolstering up of the civilian board that is supposed to oversee police discipline. In September, the City Council filed suit against the city to restore a civilian police commission.

“If something’s wrong, something’s wrong, and we have to fix it,” Sarno said recently. “The police have a very difficult job. We want to make sure it’s done correctly.”

Since taking office 12 years ago, few have been bigger backers of public safety than Sarno. Seemingly at every speaking engagement, he gives thanks to “the brave men and women in blue.”

One of the unfortunate aspects to the many controversies that have swirled around the department over the last few years has been the damage to the reputation of the department, Sarno says.

An accusation of wrongdoing “stays in the headlines for a while,” he said at one point. “You’re not going to hear about the good things, the life-saving things the department does.”

While Sarno still backs the police, he suggests a review of policies and practices can only make the department better.

“When that report came out, it didn’t shine a good light on the Springfield Police Department,” Sarno said. “And that’s a shame because you have a lot of brave, dedicated police officers who are professional and have integrity and compassion. “Like in every profession, you have people who don’t do the right thing – and that has to be dealt with.”

Critics say they welcome turning the department around. The problem is they have seen it turned around again and again. As with turning a crank handle, one full revolution gets you back where you started.

City Council president Justin Hurst said anyone who has lived in Springfield for the last 30 years has seen the city in an almost near-permanent cycle in which officers get in trouble for some kind of misconduct, followed by pledges of reform within the department, and then, after a period of calm, officers again get in trouble for some kind of misconduct.

This time, Hurst said, “I hope they get it done, but we’ll see.”

Bishop Talbert W. Swan II, the president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, says he’s seen the same cycle and has little hope that this time any changes will stick. “We’ve been through this over and over through the years,” he says.

The history of misconduct in the Springfield Police Department neither begins nor ends with Gregg Bigda.

There is a long, documented history of racially-tinged incidents involving white officers beating Black or Latino people, of City Hall protests and marches, of lawsuits and settlements totaling millions. All through the years, the city has been pledging reforms that will straighten things out and restore accountability.

At least three times during the past three decades, the Department of Justice came to town to investigate the police, beginning with the 1994 death of Benjamin Schoolfield, an unarmed black man who was shot by a white officer.

There were also federal investigations undertaken in the 2004 case of Douglas Greer, a Black charter school principal who charged several police officers with dragging him out of his car and beating him while he was suffering an diabetics seizure at a gas station in the South End, and in the 2009 case of Melvin Jones III, a Black man beaten with a flashlight by a white officer during a drug arrest on Rifle Street.

Schoolfield’s family was awarded $2 million in damages by a jury in a 1998 wrongful death suit.

Greer received a $170,000 out-of-court settlement with the city in 2008. He died three years later.

Jones also received an out-of-court settlement with the city for $575,000 in 2012.

In each instance, as with the Bigda case, the mere interest by federal investigators prompted the department to examine how it operates. The latest Department of Justice report has not been treated any differently.

Sarno and Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood contend this time it’s for real, that changes are coming and they will be substantial.

The city has hired retired Supreme Judicial Court Justice Roderick Ireland, a Springfield native, as a consultant. Ireland, in a $75,000 contract with the city, is advising the city on how to advance in implementing changes in policy, training and accountability systems within the Police Department.

In the two months since the Department of Justice report on the Narcotics Bureau was issued, Clapprood has made a complete change in personnel in the bureau, including new supervisors, deployed more than 340 body cameras throughout the department and required all officers in the field – including narcotics detectives – to use them. She also created an online portal through which people can submit complaints instead of having to go to the department’s Internal Affairs office.

From a public relations standpoint, City Hall is taking the offensive in getting ahead of the story. Sarno recently conducted a press conference to provide an update on changes within the department. He also held an online forum, that included Ireland, during which members of the public could ask questions.

The city is also looking to bolster its nine-member Community Police Hearing Board. The board is tasked to review cases of officer misconduct and make recommendations to the commissioner for appropriate punishment.

The board has been criticized as ineffectual over the years, and the DOJ report notes its members do not seem to have the training in police procedures to necessarily recognize problematic behavior by officers.

“Springfield created the CPHB to increase transparency within SPD and enhance the Springfield community’s involvement in ensuring accountability within their Police Department. In practice, however, the CPHB fails to fulfill these goals,” the DOJ report states.

Clapprood is also conducting a systematic review of policies and practices that is part of the department gaining its certification from the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission. That will be completed by next year if things go smoothly, she said.

Once the department is certified, “it means (our) policies and procedures are up to snuff,” Clapprood said.

A 40-year veteran of the department, Clapprood has been permanent commissioner for a little over a year. She held the post in an interim capacity for six months after the sudden retirement in February 2019 of her predecessor, John Barbieri.

Clapprood’s contract extends through May 2024, at which time she has to retire because she’ll be 65 years old. She does have enough years of municipal service now to retire at her maximum pension.

Asked why she’s still around, and she explains that she wants to fix the department.

Can it be fixed? “Oh yeah. No doubts,” Clapprood says.

In the 10 years since his family’s encounter with the police, Palacio says he’s been left to wonder how many other cases are out their like his, incidents in which people were unfairly targeted by police but felt too scared or frightened to do anything about it.

His family is from Colombia. His father came to the United States on a green card, became a citizen and brought his wife and children here in search of a better life. The only reason they sued was because a family friend steered them toward a lawyer she knew. Without that, he says, “My family wouldn’t have a voice.”

One of the reasons his parents settled the case before trial was to avoid drawing more attention to themselves, Palacio says. Even today, his parents are reluctant to talk about what happened, and they would not speak with The Republican.

The family who lived in the upstairs apartment on Palmyra street were unauthorized immigrants from Mexico. After the 2010 incident, they quietly moved on rather than cause a fuss, according to Palacio.

Palacio says he had felt that what happened to his family was an isolated incident. That was until he learned of other acts of police misconduct over the years.

“Something has to change the system for these things not to happen again,” he says. “Because I don’t want what happened to my family and what we went through for other families to go through. Because these are really traumatic experiences.”

Published at Sun, 15 Nov 2020 01:00:00 +0000

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