WASHINGTON — The Justice Department took steps Wednesday to review policing practices in Washington, DC and Springfield, Massachusetts, such as how and when to use force, as President Biden delivers on his campaign promise to curb police abuse.
The department said it had reached an agreement with the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, after an investigation into the police narcotics bureau found a pattern of excessive force. Under that agreement, known as a consent decree, the Springfield Police Department will improve policies and training to ensure officers avoid the use of force whenever possible.
In a separate legal filing, the Justice Department said the U.S. park police and Secret Service had changed policies regarding how they monitor demonstrations, closing a case civil rights groups had brought against the Trump administration. The groups accused officials of abuse of power by violently dispersing protesters gathered in front of the White House two years ago.
The Biden administration is struggling to make meaningful progress on its pledge to curb police abuse. A bipartisan effort to pass a national police overhaul failed in Congress last year, and the White House is still preparing an executive order on police reform after police groups complained that an early draft of the document had not taken into account their views .
Attempts to overhaul law enforcement are particularly sensitive, as police forces in cities across the country suffer from thinning ranks, increasing workloads and rising crime.
The Springfield consent decree, the first under the Biden administration since Attorney General Merrick B. Garland repealed a Trump administration policy restricting its use, is still awaiting approval by a federal judge.
The Justice Department began investigating the Springfield Police Department under the Trump administration. In a statement on Wednesday, Kristen Clarke, the chief of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said the division had found systemic problems leading to excessive violent use by narcotics bureau agents. Those problems, she said, were caused by shortcomings in policy, training and accountability mechanisms.
“The pattern or practice of illegal behavior has eroded public confidence,” Ms Clarke said. “It undermined the police’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 also maintains 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; its last Attorney General, William P. Barr; and officials from other federal agencies, as well as local law enforcement.
In June 2020, protesters gathered in Lafayette Park, outside the White House, to denounce police brutality in the days after George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by a police officer. Law enforcement officers, including from the Park and Secret Service, and National Guard troops poured into the park to clear the way for Mr. Trump to walk across it, with mounted and riot police using tear gas and other military-grade weapons and violent force. Some officers were accused of covering their badges and other identifying markings.
The Park Police have now agreed that all officers must wear clearly visible identification on their uniforms. It can no longer revoke demonstration permits in the absence of a threat 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, needs to make it clear in its policy that the use of force and dispersal of protesters is generally not justified simply because some people in a crowd of protesters engage in illegal behavior.
The changes “will reinforce our commitment to protecting and respecting constitutionally protected rights,” Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general, said in a statement.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington police think tank, welcomed the changes.
“When I think about that day at Lafayette Park, so many things went wrong,” he said. “It is important that the Justice Department has come to these conclusions.”