Analysis: Fruitful Discussion Possible after Non-Fatal Police Misconduct…
Amid the current national climate of community-police relations, Springfield has been relatively lucky. Tensions are often high, but since Melvin Jones, there have been no Charlottes or Tulsas caught on cell phone cameras. Nevertheless, the actions of Gregg Bigda, a Springfield narcotics detective, threaten the political détente on the issue and the expectations placed upon Police Commissioner John Barbieri.
Video evidence allegedly shows Bigda, a 20 year SPD veteran, cursing and threatening the juveniles charged with stealing the unmarked car another officer—who later resigned—left idling outside a city pizzeria. Barbieri suspended Bigda for 60 days, but many community leaders, including several city councilors, found the punishment insufficient. Nevertheless, there may be silver linings here, too.
Councilors Adam Gomez, Justin Hurst, Orlando Ramos, Bud Williams and Marcus Williams held a press conference Thursday to protest what they considered the lax penalty Bigda received. The detective accepted the punishment without a police complaints advisory board hearing.
Barbieri, for his part, said he followed the advice of the city’s law and personnel departments, which believed termination would not withstand a civil service appeal.
It was the Wilbraham PD—the youths drove the cop car through Wilbraham before being apprehended in Palmer—who reported an unidentified officer also kicking one of the juvenile suspects. How other police departments view Springfield’s may now be in question.
Bigda did not just leave a steaming pile in front of 36 Court Street and Pearl Street, but also on District Attorney Anthony’s Gulluni’s doorstep. Among the statements he allegedly made were threats to plant evidence against the juveniles. Cases past and present premised on Bigda’s testimony could now be undermined. The Republican reported there is also a criminal investigation of the juveniles’ arrest in Palmer although Bigda does not now face charges.
A court sealed the videos, discovered during the juveniles’ case, to protect the defendants.
Some might consider it cynical to note nothing worse happened to the juveniles. Springfield will probably pay out a substantial amount of money to the juvenile allegedly assaulted. Bigda’s language, as alleged, is out of line, discourteous and disgusting and besmirches the vast majority of Springfield officers who do their duty with honor and professionalism.
Yet, nobody is dead or permanently injured.
Indeed, this incident has shown Springfield might be capable of having this discussion calmly. It is too early to pin a police-community relations medal to Mayor Domenic Sarno’s lapel, but he has ordered further legal review. Bigda may face no further punishment for now, but rank & file cops and the brass can learn from this situation.
Short-term, Barbieri has the most on the line. He became Springfield’s top law enforcement officer amid high hopes. Described as a cop’s cop and recognized for community policing like the C3 program, many believed he could bridge the gulf between the police and the residents they serve.
By acting on the advice of City Solicitor Ed Pikula and HR/Labor Relations head William Mahoney, Barbieri risks looking either to be taking Bigda’s side or deferring to bureaucrats. Neither is quite fair.
In isolation, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission might spike a termination due to an incident like this. The Commission looks at whether the discipline meted out is justified based on the evidence before the appointing authority, in this case, Barbieri. Unhinged outbursts, without more, might not justify a termination when weighty options like a 60-day suspension are available.
Bigda’s encounter with these joyriding youths did not occur in a vacuum, though. He has had domestic issues and has had his gun taken away before according to reports.
Moreover, media outlets have requested records of other internal investigations of Bigda. If more turns up, the 60-day suspension may then seem light. That is especially true given The Republican’s report that another officer was canned for smoking on the job.
At the same time, politics cannot simply gloss over procedure. The councilors who demanded answers Thursday were right to do so, but it is glib to simply demand Bigda’s firing. Civil service rightly exists to guard against abuse from the political system. That it sometimes protects perceived bad actors is not unlike safeguards that set a guilty man free when law enforcement violates his constitutional rights.
While Bigda remains in the city’s employ, his investigatory career is effectively over anyway. Gulluni, the DA, would be crazy to let him on the stand again given the alleged statements. Even a 1L law student would shred the detective’s credibility on cross-examination.
With crime apparently down and seeming efforts to mend fences between community and cops, Barbieri’s reputation should not suffer long-term. The career Springfield officer who has candidly spoken about arresting cops himself can recover if he continues his personal outreach to communities of color. Neighboring departments were witnesses and Barbieri must assure them that this was an aberration and not reflective of Springfield’s Finest at-large.
However, Sarno also bears some responsibility in backing up his commissioner, especially before Springfield residents. He can do it with added transparency. The court’s seal means releasing the video is not an option, but Springfield can take other measures to avoid the mistakes of Charlotte.
It may not placate all, but the mayor—with Barbieri’s consent—can waive privilege protecting advice the commissioner received from the Law Department. Assuming Mahoney and Pikula’s opinion was substantive and justified, Barbieri cannot be blamed for acting on sound, if unpopular guidance.
A full, complete and public accounting of the deliberation over Bigda’s future—to the extent his privacy rights are not violated—is in order. This can be a model for future such incidents.
There’s no justification for what happened—from the pizzeria to the interrogation room—but nor is it time for rash, political expediency. This can be a teachable moment for Springfield, if all parties are willing.