Support the news

Testimony Raises Questions About On-Duty Officers Drinking At Springfield Police HQ08:21
Download

Play
Police cruisers in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Courtesy The Springfield Republican/Masslive.com)
Police cruisers in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Courtesy The Springfield Republican/Masslive.com)

The Springfield, Massachusetts, police department has gone through some high-profile scandals in the last few years. But while investigators have focused on police misconduct on the job, one claim has not made the same headlines.

A document released earlier this year suggests a culture of drinking alcohol at the city's police headquarters.

The allegations stem from a 2016 pizza run by a Springfield narcotics officer that went terribly wrong.

According to public documents, officer Steven Vigneault left his unmarked cruiser running outside the restaurant, and several teenagers jumped in and stole it.

The rest of the evening devolved into a series of events — including threats and alleged violence by police — that would derail the careers of Vigneault and at least one other officer, Gregg Bigda.

MassLive later obtained video of Bigda berating two young men at the police station in nearby Palmer, suggesting he could make up evidence and telling them they belong in jail. (Editor's Note: The video contains graphic language.)

After Vigneault resigned from the force, he told The Springfield Republican that he and other officers had been drinking at the station, and that they even had a vending machine full of beers.

Vigneault said Bigda had been sipping rum at his desk — an allegation he repeated in a whistleblower lawsuit. Bigda, who has since been suspended, denied the charge. Lawyers for Bigda and Vigneault did not return NEPR's requests for comment.

Reporter Stephanie Barry said she tried to get the police department to respond to the drinking allegations at the time, but never got an official comment.

"It seemed to be the worst-kept secret at the department," she said. "It seemed like a sort of nudge, wink. Everyone knows that happens."

Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda, left, and former Springfield detective Steven Vigneault (Courtesy of Don Treeger and Dave Roback of The Republican/MassLive.com)
Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda, left, and former Springfield detective Steven Vigneault (Courtesy of Don Treeger and Dave Roback of The Republican/MassLive.com)

After Barry's article, there was an internal investigation into drinking at the station. According to that report, 18 officers, including Bigda, denied that any officers drink on duty or at the station.

"Everyone involved just said nope, nope, nope, nope, nope," Barry said. "And that was the end of that."

But the U.S. Department of Justice decided to look into the issue. During a grand jury probe in the spring of 2018, federal investigators asked Springfield officers about the stolen-cruiser incident, and whether they knew about drinking at the police station.

At that point, several officers, granted immunity, admitted they had lied to internal investigators. In the section of the grand jury transcript obtained by NEPR, at least six officers in the narcotics unit said they had either observed or participated in drinking at police headquarters.

Grand jury investigations are usually sealed, but the DA's office sent it to defense attorneys earlier this year because the information could impact other cases.

In one section of the transcript, Assistant U.S. Attorney Deepika Shukla asked officer Jose Robles about access to alcohol.

"Do you have any knowledge of that soda machine containing alcohol?"

"Yes."

"Can you tell the grand jury about that?"

"Yes. Once we are done for the night, in our unit, once in a while, we'll get beers. And after we've been released of our duties, we'll have a couple of beers. And that's about it."

Springfield officer Luke Cournoyer, like his colleagues in the narcotics unit, had previously denied any alcohol use in the internal investigation.

In this part of the grand jury transcript, Shukla reads Cournoyer's previous statement back to him:

" 'Furthermore, I have never witnessed any officer consume alcohol while on duty and I've never consumed alcohol while working.' Is that true or false?"

"That's false."

"And why is that false?"

"Because I've had beers in the office with other officers."

Several officers said they were only drinking after they were relieved of duties, even though they were still at the station, and their official shift was not yet over.

The prosecutor pointed out a potential problem with that while interviewing Robles.

"So what would happen if a call came in during your work hours and everybody was drinking?"

"Nothing. We would be off duty."

"Who would cover if something happened that was part of the Narcotic Unit officer's duties?"

"Nobody."

"Do you think that's a good system?"

"When you're off, you're off."

The U.S. Attorney's office for Massachusetts would not comment on whether this investigation is ongoing.

Barry said that based on her reporting, this culture of drinking seemed to be specific to the narcotics unit.

"I was told by other officers, both within Springfield and outside of Springfield, that [the narcotics unit] kind of maintained this kind of cowboy, rogue affect that was like a throwback to policing of the past," she said.

Questions Linger As Police Leaders Seek To 'Move Forward'

Despite the revelations, it's not clear if drinking at the station has been directly addressed in the four years since the Palmer incident.

Police Chief John Barbieri retired in February, and new Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood declined an interview.

Police spokesman Ryan Walsh said there's no drinking allowed at the station — then or now.

"It was something that was likely addressed by the former commissioner three years ago," Walsh said. "It's not something that the new commissioner ... is moving forward. It's not something that she sees as a current problem. And it's nothing that she's really addressed. We're kind of moving forward instead of looking back."

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood stand together. (Courtesy The Springfield Republican/Masslive.com)
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood stand together. (Courtesy The Springfield Republican/Masslive.com)

Walsh would not address anything in the grand jury transcript, saying it's been resealed. Instead, he referred to the earlier internal investigation of alleged alcohol use at the station. Aside from a former police officer's claim about the night of the stolen cruiser, Walsh said: "There was no admission or no evidence that it was occurring on duty at any time."

When it was pointed out that those claims were contradicted in the grand jury transcript that came out later, Walsh said, "We can't talk about the grand jury transcript, but I'm going to disagree with your statement. There was no on-duty drinking."

Since the grand jury report became public, the drinking allegations have not prompted any official outcry — though many people were surprised.

"It felt like I was reading something out of a movie," said Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst. "I mean, it was almost like a book that I couldn't put down. I was so shocked and appalled by it."

Hurst speaks out frequently about what he calls a culture of impunity by Springfield police, including abuse of power and its consequences.

For instance, Officers Vigneault and Bigda were indicted last year on civil rights charges regarding the Palmer case, and some unrelated cases had to be dropped because those officers were witnesses. The city has been sued over the Palmer incident and another case where off-duty officers allegedly beat up men outside the Nathan Bill's bar.

So Hurst said he's also concerned about the city's liability. But he'd assumed the drinking issue had been dealt with.

"I have to imagine that with everything that has occurred, if Commissioner Clapprood has not addressed it, then we have an even bigger problem," Hurst said.

So far, defense lawyers in Springfield have not taken any public action around the drinking allegations. But many consider them troubling.

Howard Friedman is a civil rights attorney in Boston. He represents one of the juveniles who was berated during the Palmer incident and is now suing the officers.

"It reflects a lack of supervision in the Springfield Police Department," Friedman said. "It also perhaps could explain some of the inappropriate behavior by the police officers."

Springfield defense attorney Peter Alexander Slepchuk specializes in cases involving excessive force by police.

"Policing is a hard job. I totally understand that and appreciate that," Slepchuk said. "But it's something that has to be done with a clear head and a rational mind. Otherwise, people can get hurt and people's rights can be violated."

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey's office declined to say whether or not it's looking into drinking at the Springfield police station. The office did note that Healey has indicted several officers in the Nathan Bill's case.

Officer Joseph Gentile, president of the Springfield patrolman's union, also declined to be interviewed. He said he couldn't see an advantage to his membership in speaking publicly, and that now that there's a new commissioner, they're trying to move forward.


This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative and originally aired on New England Public Radio.

This segment aired on November 8, 2019.

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news