City of Springfield settles one civil rights lawsuit involving Bigda, still faces a second one
In December, Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda was acquitted of criminal charges stemming from an infamous 2016 incident in Palmer, Massachusetts. Bigda had been accused of brutalizing several teenage suspects.
But even though Bigda was not convicted in criminal court, he still had to face two civil lawsuits — one of which just settled.
Most of the public learned about allegations against Bigda after Springfield Republican reporter Stephanie Barry got hold of a video (warning: violent language) recorded at the Palmer police station.
On a night in February 2016, Bigda and other officers from the Springfield Narcotics unit had tracked and arrested several teenage boys. They were accused of stealing an unmarked cruiser that one officer left outside a pizza restaurant with the engine running.
Throughout the video, Bigda repeatedly screams, threatens and tells one of the boys he could plant “a kilo of coke” on him.
“I’m not hampered by the (expletive) truth, I don’t give a (expletive),” Bigda yelled. “People like you belong in jail!”
At one point, Bigda threatened he would “kill you in the parking lot."
After the video went public, Bigda was put on unpaid leave from the Springfield police department. Almost six years later, Bigda was tried in federal court on criminal charges of excessive force and abusive interrogation.
In December, a jury, which saw the video, acquitted Bigda after the defense claimed the government cherry-picked the evidence.
But two civil lawsuits were filed against Bigda and other parties, brought by the youth arrested that night, seeking monetary damages.
Attorney Lauren Marcous represents a young man she identifies by his nickname, “O’Neil,” who was 14 that night.
Marcous said her client was kicked in the face while he was handcuffed on the ground, and bitten several times by a police dog. He is now suing the police for violating his civil rights “and just generally being abusive and out of control and acting out of practice with what would be expected of a uniformed officer — or a plainclothes officer, for that matter,” Marcous said.
Bigda is not the only defendant. O'Neil's lawsuit also includes: the city of Springfield; Matthew Baird, the state trooper who brought the K9 dog to the scene; the police supervisor, Rupert Daniel, who — according to the lawsuit — should have known Bigda was prone to excessive force and drinking rum on the job.
A second lawsuit, filed by the teenager Bigda yelled at in the video, also named an additional officer as well the former police commissioner, John Barbieri. It settled for an undisclosed sum on February 3, although details have not been made public.
Marcous said O’Neil, who is now 20 and a new father, is hoping for a settlement soon, as well. She said her client was deeply disappointed by Bigda’s acquittal in the criminal case.
“He's feeling pretty downtrodden at this point,” Marcous said. “He’s feeling like there’s not a lot of justice to be had in this case, in this situation."
But while a guilty verdict might have helped make her client’s case, experts say civil and criminal litigation run on very different tracks.
Northampton lawyer Luke Ryan has sued the Springfield police in the past for brutality, including against Gregg Bigda, but he’s not involved in the current litigation.
Ryan said a civil case is easier to win because the burden of proof is lower. In a criminal trial, the jury must be virtually certain the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." But in a civil trial, there just has to be a "preponderance of the evidence."
“The weight of your evidence is persuasive enough just by a hair and you've satisfied your burden,” Ryan said.
Since the Palmer incident, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on gross misconduct by Springfield’s narcotics unit.
The civil lawsuits charged the police department with creating a culture that condoned abusive behavior. The plaintiffs noted there were 24 internal affairs investigations against Gregg Bigda, including 13 involving excessive force, which Ryan said makes a stronger case against the police “because they had a pattern and practice of doing nothing in response to allegations of excessive force.”
Even so, Ryan added that “suing the police is really hard,” especially in a region like western Massachusetts where smaller law firms can’t afford the time and resources civil rights cases often require.
Also, Ryan said many officers claim what’s called qualified immunity, which makes it harder to find legal grounds to sue.
Joseph Kittredge is the attorney for Matt Baird, the state trooper being sued for not having control of his dog. In the criminal trial, Baird testified for the government, against Bigda. Kittredge said the civil claims against Baird have no merit.
“It doesn't take very much for a plaintiff to manufacture a factual scenario to try to drag in as many police officers as possible in an attempt to try to shake down either a city or the commonwealth in an attempt to get some money,” Kittredge said.
Kittredge also pointed out that the plaintiff did steal a police cruiser, which no one disputed.
“And now to claim that he was harmed as a result of being caught by the canine is ridiculous from our perspective,” he said.
But Ryan said police don’t get a pass to brutalize anyone, whether or not they’re a criminal suspect.
“The fact that a person bringing a civil rights case may have committed a crime and has a certain amount of baggage,” Ryan said, “in my profession, that's something you often have to deal with. We don't all always get to represent Rosa Parks.”
Despite the uphill battle, and the fact that even officers whom Ryan has successfully sued have since been promoted, he said civil rights lawsuits have a broader purpose.
“It’s hard not to be a little bit cynical about that, but I think in the long run, the more of this litigation that shines a light on this behavior, the more difficult it is for the institution not to make big changes in terms of how they they run a police department,” Ryan said. “I think if people don't bring these lawsuits, you're essentially saying, OK, I guess we're just going to trust the police to police themselves.”
Last fall, the Springfield city council approved $5 million to settle outstanding police brutality cases, which includes the one settled last week and — potentially — O'Neil's claim.
City Councilor Justin Hurst, a longtime critic of the police department, voted against the settlement money. He said that wasn’t because the plaintiffs don’t deserve compensation. Rather, he wanted to “understand exactly what the city is being sued for, what the accusations are,” Hurst said. “It's just a transparency issue.
Springfield's city solicitor, Ed Pikula, said he is working on a report to present details to the City Council.
Hurst said he’d rather spend money upfront on better officer training and he wants a consent decree stemming from the Department of Justice report that will force the police department to change.
“Bigda just wasn't created overnight. Bigda was created out of a culture that, in my opinion, is still present,” Hurst said. “And so until we really start addressing the culture within the police department, we will never rid ourselves of these lawsuits.”
At a recent municipal meeting, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Claprood told councilors that her department had reached an agreement with the Department of Justice, including for field training officers and more extensive disciplinary measures.
NEPM asked to interview Clapprood about the culture Hurst said persists. In response, police spokesperson Ryan Walsh said no complaints of excessive force were upheld in 2021.
Bigda is now on paid leave while the department goes over transcripts from his criminal trial, Walsh said. Messages to Bigda’s attorney were not returned.