SPRINGFIELD – Months after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report alleging widespread two-year wrongdoing in the Narcotics Division of the Springfield Police Department, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said federal officials had him over the details left in the dark.
That’s a problem, he says, because his prosecutors cannot meet their ethical obligation to provide exculpatory information if they don’t know what it is.
After exchanging a number of letters with the US law firm over the past few months, Gulluni is now ready to sue in order to find out the details he needs.
Another solution suggested by Springfield’s city attorney could be for prosecutors and police to work together to piece together the missing information.
Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno promised reforms following the federal report, but said the lack of details made it difficult to track down certain allegations.
The Justice Department said the report was based on a review of around 114,000 pages of documents provided by the city, as well as interviews with defendants, defense lawyers and others. The report looked at the behavior of the department’s Narcotics Division between 2013 and 2018, portraying narcotics detectives as persistent and brutal – and tending to falsify arrest reports to gloss over their use of excessive force.
The report included a laundry list of examples of suspects or bystanders being hit, kicked, or put on a clothesline in the head while being driven by an arrest on a motorcycle. However, in many cases the report used incorrect initials for witnesses and did not provide any incident data.
The report highlighted a bumpy relationship between federal law enforcement officers and the law enforcement agency that was marred by a series of misconduct investigations that have haunted the department for years. The officers have been charged and await trial for assault and civil rights. The grand jury’s investigation has been going on for years and the department has been hit by dozens of lawsuits.
The 28-page report was the culmination of the only investigation into “patterns and practices” in a police department initiated by the administration of President Donald Trump. It was released in July, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction across the country after a series of police killings of unarmed black people.
The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized Gulluni for not aggressively pursuing details of the report, but the prosecutor says he did.
“When that report came out, they saw fake reports from Springfield police officers,” Gulluni said in a recent interview. “We immediately started a process to obtain more information to meet our ethical, professional and legal responsibilities.”
The public prosecutors are obliged to pass on potentially exculpatory information to the accused and their lawyers. This includes the fruits of alleged misconduct by police officers during an investigation or arrest – such as the use of excessive force and how this may or may not be documented in reports.
“We believe they have a responsibility to provide them, and we have a responsibility to provide them so that justice can be done,” said Gulluni.
To that end, Gulluni phoned federal officials to follow up the underlying reports on which the agency based its conclusions, only to be rejected after a series of letters formally requesting the information.
A letter dated October 21 from the United States attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, received by The Republican effectively ended the dialogue. Lelling declined to hand over the materials, arguing, in part, that they were privileged and that the investigation was still ongoing. Lelling suggested that Gulluni ask the police about the files.
“Since these documents are available from (the law enforcement agency) – a department your office is likely to work with on a daily basis – they should not be obtained from the (US Attorney’s Office),” said the letter, which contains many of the report’s conclusions are. Opinions ”from federal investigators within the Civil Rights Division.
The federal investigation was initiated in April 2018 when the community cried out about the so-called “Bigda situation”. Narcotics detective Gregg Bigda is suspended from duty without pay while awaiting trial in federal court for allegedly violating the civil rights of three Latino boys in 2016. He is accused of putting a police dog on one of the teenagers and kicking two others while they were handcuffed. He reportedly spat on one while yelling, “Welcome to the white city.” The teenagers were accused of stealing the narcotics department’s unmarked cruiser in February 2016.
Both Gulluni and police officers have argued that it is virtually impossible to redo the federal government’s nearly three-year investigation into hundreds of thousands of documents. Guessing would be risky and impractical, said Gulluni. Plus, Gulluni said, he and Lelling should be on the same team.
“In all honesty, they have the same professional and ethical responsibilities as prosecutors and lawyers. There is probably no exception, at least I can see, that would prevent them, ”said Gulluni. “If that means going to a federal court to ask a judge to compel them, that’s what we will do.”
In response to a request for comment, Lelling reiterated his refusal, but added that he may re-examine it once the investigation is over.
“As we explained to District Attorney Gulluni, Justice Department regulations prevent us from disclosing the information, also because it remains an ongoing investigation and the requested documents belong to the police department. In the meantime, however, the district attorney can request these documents from the Springfield Police Department himself and we can re-examine the request to our office once the investigation is complete, ”Lelling said.
Gulluni dutifully sent a letter to Clapprood and city attorney Edward Pikula asking for the files. Pikula replied in a letter dated December 10th that after the federal report was published, the police authority had started its own information mission with limited success.
“As I am sure you know, shortly after receiving the report, the police commissioner hired personnel to review the incidents described in the report in order to identify the specific dates of the incidents, identifiable police officers and persons referred to in the report,” Pikula wrote .
The report clearly refers to a few publicly known cases, Pikula wrote, such as the alleged flogging of teenagers who stole a police vehicle and a brawl involving police officers outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant.
“However, there are still a number of issues that have been referred to that have not been fully identified with certainty, and efforts to do so continue,” wrote Pikula.
Clapprood referred questions about this story to Pikula.
Since the federal report was published, Pikula said the narcotics department has not been exposed to any complaints from citizens about excessive violence. He suggested a partnership between Gulluni’s office and the city to ponder the reports they believe federal investigators have identified as suspicious, but with the caveat that Clapprood denies some of the report’s findings.
Gulluni said he still intended to ask Lelling’s office for information.