Investigating the Springfield Police Department

Hampden County’s new DA takes on a police shooting case that dredges up years of trouble between Springfield police and the community they are sworn to serve.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

By Maureen Turner, Valley Advocate

Rev. Talbert W. Swan, II, President, Springfield Branch NAACP

In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, four Springfield police officers pursued a Pontiac Grand Am that had been reported stolen from a Boston Road gas station the day before.

The car was driven by 18-year-old Tahiem Goffe of Springfield, who had two teenage passengers. According to reports of the incident, two officers followed the car as it headed east on Taylor Street, while a second pair of officers drove ahead to cut it off by blocking the car with their cruiser at the intersection of Taylor and Kibbe Avenue.

His path forward blocked, Goffe put the Grand Am in reverse, smashing into the cruiser that was pursuing him. Then he drove forward, in the direction of the two officers who’d parked on Kibbe Avenue and were now approaching the car on foot. As the car came at the officers, one of them, Matthew Benoit, fired one shot, which hit Goffe. Benoit was then struck by the car.

Both Benoit and Goffe were taken to Baystate Medical Center. The officer was treated for contusions and back and knee injuries and was released. He is now on paid administrative leave.

Goffe spent a day in critical condition before dying from the gunshot wound on Nov. 7. The teen, whom police say had already been arrested “numerous times,” would have faced charges including attempted murder, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and larceny.

The case reignited a long-standing public debate in Springfield about how to ensure that cases in which police use force are handled fairly, for all parties involved. It’s a difficult debate, one that touches on race (Goffe was black; Benoit is white), public safety and police power, in a city that’s seen a number of high-profile cases of alleged police brutality.

For years, community leaders and city officials have grappled—not always productively—with those issues. Now, with a relatively new district attorney in office, the matter is once again on the table.

A few days after Goffe’s death, the Springfield NAACP chapter called on Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the incident, “to ensure that proper police procedures were employed and that the investigation will not be compromised.” Under the policy now in place, in cases like the Goffe shooting, the Springfield Police Department’s Internal Investigation Unit and Detective Bureau conduct separate investigations of the incident, which then go to the District Attorney.

In a press release, the NAACP called Goffe’s shooting “eerily reminiscent” of the case of Benjamin Schoolfield, a 20-year-old, unarmed black Springfield resident who was shot and killed in a confrontation with police in 1994. Officers had stopped Schoolfield because the van he was driving had been reported stolen; that report later turned out to be false.

A grand jury found the shooting, by Officer Dan Brown, to be an accident, and the District Attorney’s office did not prosecute the officer. The case took on a particular notoriety after Brown, at a party thrown by his colleagues after he was cleared, was presented with a gift of a ham—a reference, some contend, to a Southern tradition of presenting vigilantes with a ham after the murder of a black man. Schoolfield’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and received a $700,000 settlement.

Whatever similarities there are between the Schoolfield and Goffe cases, there is one major difference: the Schoolfield shooting took place during the 20-year tenure of District Attorney Bill Bennett, Mastroianni’s predecessor. It was not the only incident in which activists accused Bennett of favoring the interests of cops accused of abusing their power over the rights of their alleged victims, often young men of color. That anxiety is not unique to Springfield; as cases around the country show, there can be deep public mistrust of prosecutors being put in charge of investigating police conduct, given how closely cops and prosecutors work together in criminal cases.

In a four-page position paper sent by the NAACP to Mastroianni, the Rev. Talbert Swan II, president of the group, argued the need for independent investigators in any cases involving a shooting by a police office.

While the branch is hopeful that, under Mastroianni, the DA’s office ” will be more diligent in its effort to insure the integrity of investigations into police conduct than previous administrations,” Swan wrote, “we cannot overlook the historical fact that the office has not been, and, in the nature of things, could not be, an effective instrument for insuring such transparency.

“The district attorney’s office faces an almost hopeless conflict of interest in objectively handling cases involving potential police misconduct because, in most cases, the office must investigate potential allegations of misconduct against police while simultaneously investigating police charges against defendants it must prosecute,” Swan continued. In the Goffe case, for instance, the two other people in the car with Goffe are witnesses in the shooting investigations, while also facing criminal charges themselves, he noted. (The passengers, who have not been publicly identified because they are juveniles, are charged with larceny of a motor vehicle.)

“The symbiotic relationship that the district attorney’s office shares with the police department has demonstrated over the years both the reluctance of the office to vigorously pursue investigations into the police or to prosecute misconduct,” Swan wrote. “It has also historically demonstrated a perceived willingness to almost rubberstamp the findings of internal investigations conducted by the Springfield Police Department.”

In an interview with the Advocate, Swan suggested the state police or Attorney General’s office as appropriate choices to investigate cases in which a member of the public is shot by a city police officer. “They’d take over the investigation early. They would determine whether proper procedure was used; they would determine whether or not the Springfield police were complicit,” Swan said. “From soup to nuts, they’d do the investigation.” Their findings would then be turned over to the District Attorney, “so he’d be reviewing documents from someone who’s not invested in the Springfield police.”

In a letter to Swan, Mastroianni outlined the investigative procedure being followed in the Goffe case: the Springfield Police Department’s Internal Investigation Unit is conducting an investigation, with assistance from state police ballistics experts; simultaneously, the SPD’s Detective Bureau is conducting its own, separate investigation, as it does in any death, whether or not an officer was involved.

“I anticipate there will be some minimal sharing of information between the IIU and the DB. However, the IIU investigation is designed to function separate from other investigations, with a specific focus on the role of the officer(s)’ conduct relative to the matter,” Mastroianni wrote.

In addition, Mastroianni told the Advocate, because ballistics evidence is so crucial to the investigation, state police ballistics experts are handling all the crime-scene analysis. The investigation should wrap up by late January or early February, and the findings will be made public, he said.

Mastroianni, who has spoken about the matter to Swan, said he understands the NAACP’s concerns about conflict of interest, particularly given cases of police abuse in recent years. But, he said, it wouldn’t be practical, or necessary, to bring in an outside agency to handle every similar case. Mastroianni said he plans to handle investigations involving police officers on a case-by-case basis, in much the same way he’s handled criminal prosecutions. “That’s generally my approach, not implementing across-the-board policies,” he said.

In the Goffe case, he said, the DA’s office is actively engaged with the two ongoing SPD investigations, evaluating information as it comes in, asking for additional information and, at times, undertaking its own analysis.

“We’re not just waiting for the final draft of a report,” Mastroianni said. “Sometimes the District Attorney sits back and lets the Springfield Police Department groups give their final version and reviews it. That’s not what is happening here.”

“Ultimately, why I’m satisfied with how it’s working in this case [is] it’s all being controlled and directed by the District Attorney’s office,” he added.

That might not satisfy the NAACP, Mastroianni acknowledged. “There’s never going to be a right answer for police investigating police,” he said. Even bringing in the state police or the Attorney General could be problematic, given that those agencies sometimes work closely with prosecutors or municipal police.

“There’s never going to be an answer that makes everyone happy,” Mastroianni said.

While perhaps not happy, the NAACP is “conciliated with” Mastroianni’s “stated efforts to ensure that there will be a complete and exhaustive review, free from interference or conflict or the appearance of such conflict,” according to a press release issued by the branch after Swan’s conversations with the DA.

“District Attorney Mastroianni has been open to … having discussions on the matter,” and has shown that he understands the branch’s concerns regarding the Goffe case, Swan told the Advocate. “Though he may not be inclined to comply with our specific request, he was willing to look at some kind of hybrid that would meet in the middle some way,” by being actively engaged in the SPD’s investigations.

While that’s not the completely independent review the NAACP would like to see, Swan added, it’s an improvement over the way such cases were handled in the past. Swan said he intends to keep urging the DA to make it standard procedure for his office to be that involved in any investigation in which an officer has shot a member of the public.

In the NAACP position paper, Swan argued the importance of handling such cases with strict impartiality. Most Springfield officers do an “excellent job,” Swan wrote. (He also wrote, in a disclaimer at the top of the document, “The facts detailed in this paper neither presume nor insinuate that Springfield Police Officer Matthew Benoit’s actions in the shooting death of Tahiem Goffe were improper or racially motivated.”) Still, Swan continued, “we cannot ignore the fact that there are numerous Springfield citizens who have experienced unjust targeting, humiliation, loss of physical freedom, and even physical harm at the hands of a relatively few Springfield Police officers. Collected data will show that this is not a new phenomenon, nor simply the perspectives of a few Springfield activists. Many Springfield residents have lost faith in both the complaint and investigatory processes as they stand now.”

In addition, Swan wrote, there are “basic questions regarding the role and fairness of the conventional practice of police investigating complaints and incidents regarding their own behavior and actions.”

The issue, he noted, has implications not only for the person who was shot: “The reputation and often the career of involved police officers often depends upon whether a full and accurate determination is made of the circumstances that precipitated the event and the manner in which it unfolded. The critical nature of these investigations is also underscored by the frequency with which such incidents result in litigation. The city of Springfield has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the families of victims of police-involved shootings.”

And, Swan continued, “From a broader perspective, the Springfield police department’s reputation within the community and the credibility of its personnel are largely dependent upon the degree of professionalism and impartiality that the department can bring to such investigations. Internal investigations of police-involved shootings in general, and where citizens are wounded or killed in particular, cannot afford to be viewed dubiously by the community.”

Sgt. John Delaney, an SPD spokesman, said the department agrees with the NAACP’s call for fair and open investigations of such cases. “Checks and balances already are built into the system,” he said. “What they’re asking for is already being done.”

The SPD, Delaney said, takes these investigations very seriously. “Our investigation is wide open for everyone to look at. There’s nothing swept under the rug here,” he said. “We consider ourselves a very professional department.”

The department, Delaney added, also takes seriously the health and well-being of officers like Benoit. “Almost losing your life, causing the death of another human being—this is traumatic for anyone,” he said.

Benoit, like any officer who’s been involved in a shooting, has been offered access to counseling, as have his family members, Delaney said, adding “We’re just making sure when he is coming back to work, he’s 100 percent ready to go”—for his own safety, that of his partner and of the general public.

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