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Trial begins for Springfield police officer on civil rights charges

In this file photo from 2018, Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda leaves federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a hearing.
Don Treeger
The Republican / masslive.com
In this file photo from 2018, Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda leaves federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a hearing.

A trial has begun for a Springfield, Massachusetts, police detective charged with violating the civil rights of three youths.

The minors were accused of stealing an undercover car that was left running outside a city pizza shop in February 2016. Federal prosecutors say Officer Gregg Bigda kicked a handcuffed juvenile in the face, and later threatened two teens during a videotaped interrogation. Bigda has pleaded not guilty.

Stephanie Barry, a reporter with The Republican newspaper, said the case came to light after a Wilbraham police officer's report on the incident was leaked to her.

Stephanie Barry, The Republican: The [Springfield] public information officer at the time sent out, amid his morning briefing, that somebody stole an undercover police car. There were a bunch of kids. They took it on a joyride. They didn't know it was a police car, and [officers] ended up arresting them in Palmer. 

So it was almost this, like, whimsical story, and no one was the wiser.

And then a few months later, I got an anonymous letter in the mail with that Wilbraham police officer's use-of-force report saying, Hey, heads up, nobody knows about this, but beyond the stolen undercover car, this happened in Palmer. And then some more time went by, and no one even knew about the Bigda videos at the time.

So this incident was just, like, the messiest incident for the Springfield Police Department that I can think of in recent history.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: What is Bigda charged with, specifically?

The technical term under federal law is deprivation of rights under color of law, both in connection with the alleged kick of the juveniles, and the alleged abusive interrogation of the boys in the Palmer lockup.

Prosecutors are saying this was an illegal interrogation.

On a number of levels. Prosecutors contend the boys were entitled to have an adult with them, because they were juveniles. They weren't read their Miranda rights. They were threatened with bodily harm, false drug charges.

Officer Bigda threatened to plant a kilo of cocaine on one of them, and bragged that he could charge him with the Kennedy assassination and make it stick, because the truth matters nothing to him. And I have to sanitize some of the language, because it's not really appropriate for NPR.

So what is his defense team saying?

The defense maintains that Gregg Bigda did not harm any of the juveniles, did not kick them or harm them otherwise. And actually, the eyewitness testimony in the case is not particularly consistent on this point. So I'm interested to see how it plays out for a jury.

In terms of the interrogation, there's kind of a nuanced argument that they're making, which is [that] it wasn't actually an interrogation. In addition, they argue that there was no crime committed during the interrogation at any point, that he was using fairly standard police tactics [which] may be hard to stomach for some people, but that's the nature of police work, particularly in kind of a hard-scrabble arena like the narcotics unit.

This trial comes in the midst of increased scrutiny of the Springfield Police Department, which came under fire in a Justice Department review. It details instances of misconduct against civilians — particularly Springfield's narcotics unit, of which Bigda was a part of.

That's correct. So the Department of Justice report that you're referring to concluded that the narcotics unit had a habit of using excessive force during arrests. This entire saga, I feel like, was part of what prompted the federal government's increased scrutiny of the Springfield Police Department.

Of course, they've had other problems. But this was, in my mind, kind of the centerpiece of kind of a dark era for the Springfield Police Department, in terms of having outside authorities scrutinize their department culture, their practices, their leadership and their officers.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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