By Sarah Alvarez
On March 25, 2021, Springfield Police Department’s “independent” expert, former police chief Rick Braziel, released an assessment of SPD’s response to the July 29, 2020, Black Unity protest. During the protest numerous people were injured by both law enforcement and violent far-right counter-protesters.
In response to SPD’s unconstitutional actions, the Civil Liberties Defense Center filed a civil rights action on behalf of specific named plaintiffs and Black Unity as an organization. Black Unity sought to peacefully protest a noose in the Thurston neighborhood when police and counter-protesters turned the event into a violent and dangerous scrum.
The report’s focus on “improving” SPD’s policing misses the mark. Springfield community members demanded actual transparency, a reimagination of policing and an aggressive redistribution of police department budgets to mental health and addiction treatment, housing, crisis intervention, education and other community services. This call was echoed in communities across the country during the summer of 2020 when millions took to the streets to demand police departments be defunded and carceral systems be abolished.
Further, it is patently ridiculous to expect that a truly independent investigation could be conducted by a former police chief paid for and directed by a notoriously corrupt police department. Police and former police are generally bound by the “wall of silence,” whereby police place loyalty to each other above the safety of the community.
Despite the impossibility of achieving actual independence, even Braziel identified troubling issues within SPD in his report, including the fact that “many of the officers assigned to the July 29 demonstration were not adequately trained or equipped for this type of event” and that some officers “demonstrated a lack of impartiality” during the protest.
Notably, Braziel found that numerous aspects of SPD’s own internal investigations lacked neutrality, including officers in charge of reviewing the July 29 incident who were also involved in the incident, and that SPD failed to conduct an internal use of force review despite numerous brutal acts of police violence.
Braziel also recommended that SPD officers “not ignore victims or delay arrests for crimes committed…” This recommendation is a major and telling failure of SPD, given that making effective arrests is one of law enforcements’ primary roles. SPD only arrested one counter-protester during the protest despite the obvious violence perpetuated by counter-protesters.
Finally, while largely writing off almost all of the force used during the July 29 protest, Braziel identified some of the use of force used upon Black Unity organizer Tyshawn Ford warranted “thorough” investigation.
The widespread problems within the SPD are much larger than its mishandling of peaceful demonstrations against racism. SPD was also recently sued numerous times by a former police officer, and has two wrongful death cases of people shot and killed by police while experiencing mental illness. Chief Rick Lewis was placed on administrative leave on March 29. A new chief from outside the current department must replace him to clean house.
Of course, the report showcases notable omissions. It almost entirely fails to document community input, despite the December 20, 2020 listening session and supposed information provided by community members. The only explicit mention of community member concerns was the lack of masks worn by officers.
There was also a lack of transparency, and none of the material reviewed in generating the report is publicly available. This leaves the public in the dark and totally reliant on Braziel’s opinions. Finally, Braziel’s lack of analysis of the hateful language utilized by various officers begs the question as to whether all body camera footage relevant to this incident was provided by SPD.
Most of the report’s recommendations are the minimum of what should be required by law enforcement. Rather than admitting that SPD’s status quo operations must change dramatically, the department is already attempting to weasel out of taking basic steps. In a public statement, Chief Lewis stated that, “Some of the recommendations there were out of our control or were just recommendations for future considerations.”
SPD’s response in and of itself demonstrates a lack of concern. At a minimum, SPD should unequivocally commit to all recommendations set out in the report, acknowledge its failures outlined there, publicly release all records relied upon in generating the report, and act on community demands.
The bottom line is that nothing in this report actually requires or binds SPD to make any change at all. SPD is still free to act with impunity as it did before the report. Community outcry over SPD’s brutality is what brought us this report initially. Only continued campaigning and demands from the community will bring actual, meaningful change to the Springfield community.
Sarah Alvarez is a staff attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center. Previously she was a public defender representing low-income people accused of crimes in Snohomish County, Washington.