Last week the Justice Department indicted Springfield police officers citing gross misconduct for an incident from 2016. The DOJ was highly alarmed by the Springfield Police Department's pattern of abusive authority. The incident from 2016 included the physical assault of a teenage boy and an unlawful investigation of two more inside a jail cell.
The SPD officers beat a 14 year old boy to the point of hospitalization. The boy suffered a fractured nose, two black eyes and head contusions. At the holding cell, Officer Gregg Bigda is caught on camera threatening the other Latino boys “Welcome to the White man’s world.” The officers promised to crush the boys’ skull and beat them to death. On the tape, officer Bigda can be heard telling one of the boys that people like them belong in prison. He states, if he wanted, he can plant drugs on them and lock them up for 15 years. Bigda was making his point which is that he can throw the kid in prison for years, beat him or kill him and nothing would happen to him or any of the officers.
The issue here is that whenever there is a lack of police oversight, officers are prone to act without thinking and without fear of consequences. The video footage is also witness to the unlawful investigation that goes on behind closed doors. Intimidation, specifically, is a form of weapon hard to trace and quick to be executed by officers. Yet, the little transparency in law enforcement is not the only issue here. Instead, it’s the insufficient rules and procedures that fail to hold the police responsible for their actions.
In the past years, Gregg Bigda has been accused of holding a civilian’s leg against a police cruiser’s hot tailpipe, breaking the jaw of a mentally disabled person and striking a pregnant woman in front of children. Even with such visible misconduct, Bigda continued working as an officer with little correction. As proven, police misconduct can be difficult to reprimand and the law doesn’t provide clear or sufficient procedures for disciplining officers. According to the ACLU’s December 2017 shared report, prosecutors are less likely to file charges against an officer than civilian suspects.
Bigda is the main officer in the SPD case and his onset of police brutality is evidenced as far as 1997. The NAACP had demanded the Springfield Police Department to sanction officer Gregg Bigda who covered for an officer kicking a black man in the face. Now, twenty years later, Bigda along with three others are under investigation.The jail’s video showed that the officers were confident in their freedom from any liability. This is a clear product of a nation that’s still learning how to respond to law enforcement errors. The Springfield Police Department officers abused and threatened to kill Latino boys (age 14, 15, and 16) saying over and over again that this is their territory and they can do whatever they want.
This overt and well evidenced incident may not be the typical case of police misconduct, however, it reflects a typical sentiment within law enforcement. The lack of accountability is acknowledged and even seen as an advantage at times. The SPD officers, both in their behavior and in their conversation, stated they would have impunity at all times. In 2017, the ACLU posted a report confirming that such immunity was reflected in the statistics and history of police accountability in the U.S.
This is also the first federal investigation of any police department in Massachusetts and it confirms a pattern of police oversight. Though the DOJ’s 2018 intervention and its efforts to right wrongs is laudable, it also uncovers some ugly truths. It illustrates the way the government is reluctant to make amends until things have escalated. In every instance of these federal level investigations, a vile human rights violation and community unrest precedes any willingness to review and reform policies. In recent years, high-profile cases uncovered a lot of issues that have been overlooked.
The ability for social activism and community disapproval pushes the government to make law enforcement safer. At the same time though, this shows a weakness in our system. The lack of accountability can be ignored until a gross misconduct makes headlines. The Springfield Police Department first made headlines when the videos of the interrogation were posted online. The recordings showed blatant racism, harassment and intimidation towards the teenage Latino boys. Events like this turn the dialogue to asking questions like who is going to police the police? As incidents similar to the SPD’s treatment of the Latino boys surfaces, it is revealing the unreliable and defunct method of redress and sanctioning. It illustrates a discretion that is too broad and unsanctioned in law enforcement.
The Boston Globe interviewed Emily Gunston, a former Justice Department official in which she warned “investigators in the past have focused on departments that appeared to be ‘among the worst of the worst’ in the country.” This culture of checking the police can be worrisome. It misses the point of positive community outcomes which should be a main goal and method of measuring good policing practices. As of now, it’s a limited method of accountability because it can only be invoked when something so bad has occurred that we must investigate it. This undermines the entire system of trust and safekeeping which is the central focus of police departments. It allows for a desensitized and negligent treatment of citizens completely disregarding the actions of officers until it’s so abusive tha it must be checked.
Although the Justice Department is making a step in the right direction, it’s only a start. It is not sufficient enough to enable us to rethink and rework our understanding and practices of policing in this country. At such a time in U.S. history, a look into new training programs, a more community based approach and a more effective means of accountability is needed.
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