WASHINGTON — The Justice Department took steps Wednesday to overhaul policing practices in Washington, DC and Springfield, Mass., such as how and when to use force, as President Biden strives to deliver on his campaign promise to curb police abuse.
The department said it reached an agreement with the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, after an investigation into its police department’s narcotics bureau revealed a pattern of excessive force. Under the agreement, known as the consent decree, Springfield police will improve policies and training to ensure officers avoid the use of force whenever possible.
In a separate legal filing, the Justice Department said US Park Police and the Secret Service changed policies around how they monitor protests, ending a case that civil rights groups brought against the Trump administration. The groups accused officials of abusing their power by violently dispersing protesters who gathered outside the White House two years ago.
The Biden administration has struggled to make meaningful progress on a vow to curb police abuse. A bipartisan effort to pass a national police overhaul collapsed in Congress last year, and the White House is still working on drafting an executive order on police reform after police groups complained that their opinions had not been taken into account in an early version of the document. .
Efforts to overhaul law enforcement are particularly sensitive as police departments suffer from thinning ranks and increasing workloads and higher crime in cities across the country.
The Springfield consent decree, the first under the Biden administration since Attorney General Merrick B. Garland overturned a Trump administration policy limiting their use, still awaits approval from a federal judge.
The Justice Department has begun investigating the Springfield Police Department during the Trump administration. In a statement released Wednesday, Kristen Clarke, chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the department had uncovered systemic issues that had led to excessive violent use of force by Narcotics Bureau officers. . These problems, she said, were created by gaps in policies, training and accountability mechanisms.
“The pattern or practice of unlawful conduct has eroded public trust,” Ms Clarke said. “It undermined the ability of the police department 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 also enforces 11 consent decrees.
The agreement with the Park Police and the Secret Service is part of a settlement that stems from multiple lawsuits filed by civil rights groups against former President Donald J. Trump; its last attorney general, William P. Barr; and officials from other federal agencies as well as local police.
In June 2020, protesters gathered in Lafayette Park outside the White House to denounce police brutality in the days following the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis, by a police officer. Law enforcement agents, including Park Police and Secret Service, and National Guard troops swarmed the park to clear the way for Mr. Trump to cross it, with police on horseback and riot control agents using tear gas, other military grade weapons and violent force. Some officers have been accused of covering their badges and other identifying markers.
Park Police have now agreed that all officers must wear clearly visible identification on their uniforms. He can no longer revoke protest permits where there is no danger to public safety or a violation of the law, and officers must let protesters go safely if they are asked to disperse.
The Secret Service, for its part, must make 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 engaging in illegal behavior.
The changes “will reinforce our commitment to protecting and respecting constitutionally protected rights,” Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general, said in a statement.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police think tank, welcomed the changes.
“When I think about that day at Lafayette Park, there were so many things wrong,” he said. “It is important that the Department of Justice has reached these conclusions.”