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

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department took steps on Wednesday to overhaul policing practices in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Mass., such as how and when to use force, as President Biden works to fulfill his campaign promise to curb police abuses.

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

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

The Biden administration has struggled to make meaningful progress on a vow to curb police abuses. A bipartisan effort to pass a national policing overhaul collapsed in Congress last year, and the White House is still working to draft an executive order on police reform after police groups complained that their views had not been taken into account in an early version of the document.

Efforts to overhaul law enforcement are particularly sensitive as police agencies suffer from thinning ranks and increasing workloads and crime ticks higher 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The consent decree in Springfield, the first under the Biden administration since Attorney General Merrick B. Garland rescinded a Trump administration policy curbing their use, still awaits approval by a federal judge.

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

“The pattern or practice of unlawful conduct eroded the public’s trust,” Ms. Clarke said. “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, N.Y. 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 filed against former President Donald J. Trump; his last attorney general, William P. Barr; and officials from other federal agencies as well as the local police.

In June 2020, demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Park, outside the White House, to denounce 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 the Secret Service, and National Guard troops flooded into the park to clear the way for Mr. Trump to walk across it, with mounted police and riot officers using tear gas, other military-grade weapons and violent force. Some officers were accused of covering their badges and other identifying markers.

The Park Police has now agreed that all officers must wear clearly visible identification on their uniforms. It can no longer revoke demonstration permits absent danger to public safety or violations of law, and officers must let protesters safely leave if they are asked to disperse.

The Secret Service, for its part, must make clear in its policies that using force and dispersing protesters are not generally justified simply because some people in a crowd of protesters are engaged in unlawful conduct.

The changes “will strengthen 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 police think tank based in Washington, welcomed the changes.

“When I think about that day at Lafayette Park, there were so many things that went wrong,” he said. “It’s important that the Justice Department came to these conclusions.”

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