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New Massachusetts Commission Aims to Improve Policing

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission is able to examine the conduct of officers and issue discipline, regardless of whether or not they are found at fault by their peers. The discipline can be anything from retraining to decertification.

Springfield, Mass., Police Headquarters
Springfield Police Headquarters at 130 Pearl St.
(Don Treeger | The Republican)
In a 29-year career, Springfield, Mass., Police Officer Gregg Bigda has had more than 30 misconduct complaints against him, among them allegations of beating suspects, driving drunk and — in one particularly infamous instance in Palmer — brutalizing two teenagers accused of stealing a cop car.

But nearly all complaints against Bigda have been dismissed after internal investigations, and Springfield Police Department brass have been unable to fire the embattled officer, whom Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says “there is no place for” on the police force. Citing fears that firing Bigda wouldn’t survive an appeal brought forward by the police union, the department has instead barred Bigda from returning to work.

Bigda’s case now represents a chance for Massachusetts’ still developing police oversight board to test a power it was given in a sweeping police reform law passed in 2020: the ability to examine the conduct of particular officers and issue discipline, regardless of whether or not they are found at fault by their employers.

The Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, an independent watchdog established after the murder of George Floyd, has broad authority over the commonwealth’s 440 police agencies.

Citing portions of his disciplinary history, the board moved earlier this year to strip Bigda of his state-issued license to work in law enforcement. The matter is now under appeal, with Bigda’s future as a police officer hanging in the balance.

Donald C. Keavany Jr., an attorney for Bigda, declined to comment for this article.

“We can act almost like a superior court,” POST Executive Director Enrique Zuniga said in August. “In parallel or regardless to what happens locally, an officer can face discipline before the commission.”

That discipline can range from ordered retraining to decertification and the end of an officer’s career in law enforcement.

Police reform advocates hope the commission can be active in cases such as this, when — to the public’s ire — local police departments have found officers not at fault for misconduct or been unable to issue discipline.

“In my opinion, police can’t police themselves,” said Sophia Hall, the deputy litigation director for the Boston nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights. “If POST were to independently review allegations of misconduct, despite what a police department does, it would give the community another set of eyes and ones they could have confidence in.”

A Long History of Dismissed Complaints

Bigda, a former narcotics detective, has been mired in controversy since a February 2016 episode in which he was accused of brutalizing a pair of Latino boys who stole an undercover cop car as it idled outside a pizza shop in Springfield.

In a holding cell after their apprehension in Palmer, Bigda was captured on video threatening to kill and plant drugs on the young offenders. He was also accused of kicking and punching them, and alleged to have spat on one boy and yelled: “Welcome to white town!”

Bigda’s behavior that night got him a 60-day suspension from the police department. Springfield’s then-Police Commissioner John Barbieri said he learned of the surveillance footage after a 90-day deadline to initiate disciplinary proceedings had passed, and he did not think firing Bigda would survive a civil service appeal.

Hall said that collective bargaining contracts and the power of police unions often make it difficult for police leadership to discipline a cop. But with the POST Commission not accountable to union contracts, she believes the board could give the public confidence “that there’s a set of eyes whose only goal is to promote transparency and accountability.”

The Palmer incident ultimately led to Bigda’s indictment on federal brutality charges in 2018, after which he was suspended without pay. A jury acquitted Bigda in 2021, but Springfield officials have refused to return him to work.

Though Bigda already served the suspension, his actions in Palmer still factored into the POST Commission’s decision to deny recertification of his state license to work in law enforcement. A litany of other complaints, including ones for excessive force, also contributed.

In his order rejecting Bigda’s bid for recertification, Zuniga pointed to Bigda’s involvement in a 2016 domestic incident and a number of civil settlements the city paid out from lawsuits tied to his conduct.

At a hearing last month in which Bigda appealed to keep his certification, POST Commission lawyers raised incidents in which Bigda was accused of beating suspects with his fists, feet or department-issued flashlight. They said eight misconduct complaints against him involved violence against suspects, including some against juveniles. Several other incidents involved alcohol, including Bigda’s arrest on a drunk driving charge on Oct. 1.

Nearly all complaints against Bigda were not upheld upon internal investigation by the Springfield Police.

The department has seen a turbulent few years, capped by a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree that compelled reforms to how Springfield police are trained and held accountable for misbehavior. That followed a scathing DOJ report that found the department narcotics bureau routinely violated suspects’ constitutional rights and used excessive force.

Over the objections of the mayor, Springfield also in recent years resurrected a civilian police oversight board that can rule on disciplinary matters.

Despite internal investigators dismissing almost all complaints against Bigda, the POST Commission lawyers believe they should be considered when deciding whether to recertify him, alongside the other incidents for which he served suspensions. The laundry list of complaints showed a pattern of similar misconduct, commission lawyers argued during the hearing in which Bigda appealed his certification status.

Keavany, the attorney for Bigda, said at the time that the incidents should not be admissible in the hearing, either because each complaint was not sustained or because Bigda already accepted and served a suspension for them.

Retired Judge Charles J. Hely is presiding over Bigda’s appeal. If he sides with the commission and upholds the decertification, Bigda can still take the matter to a Massachusetts Superior Court.

A New Avenue for Investigating the Police

All misconduct complaints for serious infractions now flow through the POST Commission. If an officer is accused of biased policing, using excessive force or causing serious injury or death, a police department has two days to report the incident to the commission. Members of the public can also file complaints with the commission directly.

If it chooses, the commission can then investigate the issue and deliver its own judgment, even if parallel proceedings by the cop’s own department do not uphold the complaint, Zuniga said.

Cindy Campbell, a commission spokesperson, said the agency’s options include ordering “retraining, suspension or termination, or revocation of the officer’s certification.”

Police reform activists hope the commission will act as a check on local police departments, which they say have a tendency to protect their own.

In an emailed statement to MassLive, Frank Frederickson, the governmental affairs director for the Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, said “professionally managed police departments are capable of conducting fair and transparent internal investigations.”

He added that since the POST Commission is now notified early on about pending complaints, police departments conduct better investigations.

Certain incidents at the local level have generated significant community anger, particularly when members of the public feel an officer should be disciplined, but the department or an outside investigator finds no violation of policy.

One case in Northampton drew public outrage and media attention this summer when a video emerged of a city police officer dragging a woman from her car and another officer pepper spraying her face during a routine traffic stop in April.

English was not the woman’s first language, and she appeared not to understand commands from two officers as the situation escalated.

The police department selected an outside investigator to review the incident, who cleared the officers of breaking department policies during the traffic stop and subsequent arrest.

Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said she strongly disagreed with how the officers handled the situation. A city councilor called it “completely unacceptable.” Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said the community expected and deserved better, and that the officers’ aggressive handling of the incident “should not have happened.”

But with no finding from the investigator that the officers broke policy, Kasper said it would be difficult for her to issue discipline.

Hall, of Lawyers for Civil Rights, pointed to another incident in which the POST Commission might review an officer’s conduct.

In February 2021, Arlington police officers aggressively detained a 20-year-old Black man during a foot chase for a white suspect. Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit last year that alleged an officer pinned the Black man to the ground with a knee on his neck, despite no indications the man was tied to any crime.

The town of Arlington said a thorough review of the incident found no evidence of racial profiling or excessive use of force by the police. The investigation found some other violations of department policy, and three officers were disciplined.

Campbell, the POST Commission spokesperson, would not say whether the agency was investigating either the Northampton or Arlington incidents.

Commissioners decide in closed-door sessions which officers or incidents they will investigate, and the agency’s still-growing staff cannot investigate every complaint lodged against a police officer. When the commission chooses to suspend an officer’s certification or decertify them, the decisions are posted online.

A small minority of the thousands of police officers in Massachusetts will be subject to a complaint or internal investigation, said Frederickson, of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We take pride in our profession and when accountability is needed, we have the integrity and transparency to conduct professional standards investigations,” he said.

Hall contended that police “can’t and shouldn’t be the only arbiter of their own behavior.”

“The community deserves all the tools in their arsenal that they can get to see progress in police misconduct,” she said.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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