Justice Dept. Moves to Curb Police Abuses in D.C. and Massachusetts

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department took steps Wednesday to review police practices in Washington, DC and Springfield, Massachusetts, such as how and when to use force, as President Biden works to fulfill his campaign promise to curb police abuse.

The department said it had reached a settlement with the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, after an investigation at its police department’s narcotics bureau found a pattern of excessive force. Under that agreement, known as a consent decree, Springfield police will enhance policies and training to ensure officers avoid the use of force whenever possible.

In a separate legal filing, the Justice Department said the US Park Police and Secret Service had changed policies related to how they police demonstrations, closing a case that civil rights groups had brought. against the Trump administration. The groups accused officials of abusing their power by violently dispersing protesters who had gathered outside the White House two years ago.

The Biden administration has struggled to make meaningful progress on the promise to curb police abuse. A bipartisan effort to pass national police reform failed in Congress last year, and the White House is still working to draft an executive order on police reform after law enforcement groups complained their views had not been taken up. account in an earlier version of the document. .

Efforts to reform law enforcement are particularly sensitive as police agencies suffer from shrinking ranks and increased workloads, and crime rises in cities across the country.

The consent decree in Springfield, the first under the Biden administration since Attorney General Merrick B. Garland rescinded a Trump administration policy restricting its use, still awaits approval by a federal judge.

The Justice Department began investigating the Springfield Police Department under the Trump administration. In a statement Wednesday, Kristen Clarke, chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the department had found systemic problems that led to excessive and violent use of force by narcotics bureau agents. Those problems, she said, had been created by deficiencies in policies, training and accountability mechanisms.

“The pattern or practice of illegal conduct eroded public trust,” said Ms Clarke. “It undermined the police department’s ability to fight crime.”

The Biden administration has so far opened four other similar investigations, in Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis; Phoenix; and Mount Vernon, NY The administration is also enforcing 11 consent decrees.

The agreement with the Park Police and the Secret Service is part of a settlement that stems from multiple lawsuits that civil rights groups have filed against former President Donald J. Trump; that of his last attorney general, William P. Barr; and officials from other federal agencies, as well as from local law enforcement.

In June 2020, protesters gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House to decry police violence in the days after George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by a police officer. Law enforcement officers, including from the Park Police and Secret Service, and National Guard troops flooded the park to clear a path for Trump to cross, while mounted police and riot police used tear gas. tear gas and other military-grade weapons. and violent force. Some officers were accused of covering their badges and other identification markers.

The Park Police have now agreed that all officers must wear clearly visible identification on their uniforms. You can no longer revoke demonstration permits in the absence of danger to public safety or violations of the law, and officers must allow protesters to leave safely if asked to disperse.

The Secret Service, for its part, should make it clear in its policies that the use of force and the dispersal of protesters are generally not justified simply because some people in a crowd of protesters are engaged in illegal conduct.

The changes “will strengthen our commitment to protect and respect constitutionally protected rights,” Vanita Gupta, deputy attorney general, said in a statement.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police think tank, welcomed the changes.

“When I think back to that day in Lafayette Park, there were so many things that went wrong,” he said. “It is important that the Justice Department reached these conclusions.”

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