The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether Worcester police engage in discriminatory policing and excessive force based on race and sex.
The investigation, which includes the office of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins, will look to determine whether there’s a pattern of biased practices within the Worcester Police Department. Federal officials did not specify particular instances that led to the investigation, but they said they found “significant justification” for it.
“Ensuring that our law enforcement officers act in a constitutional and non-discriminatory manner is among the highest priorities of the Department of Justice,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement Tuesday.
Federal officials said the investigation will involve a review of the Worcester Police Department’s methods of accountability, including its systems to address misconduct complaints and discipline. The department also will evaluate how the department’s officers interact with the public, collect evidence and complete investigations.
GBH News was unable to reach a Worcester police spokesperson for comment, but top city officials — including Police Chief Steven Sargent and Mayor Joseph Petty — released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon saying that they will cooperate with the investigation.
"The Worcester Police Department will continue to work with the state and federal partners on public safety initiatives to protect and serve our citizens," the statement read. "The City and Worcester Police Department collectively strive to deliver the highest quality of municipal services to residents and will continue to do so in a transparent and professional manner as the investigation takes its course."
Federal law prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of policing that violates individuals’ constitutional rights. The Justice Department can enforce the law through civil litigation.
In Massachusetts, the department opened a similar investigation in 2018 into Springfield’s police department that resulted in an agreement earlier this year that the city’s police will improve policies and training related to officers’ use of force. A federal judge appointed an independent monitor to ensure the police department makes the changes.
Worcester police have received past scrutiny for their use of force and how they discipline officers. Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay a man of Liberian descent $20,000 to settle a lawsuit in which he claimed an officer racially profiled and falsely arrested him. The officer was cleared of racial profiling and excessive force, but prosecutors said surveillance video showed the officer lied about the arrest.
Worcester police have also faced recent criticism for the use of a taser on a pastor at a church in 2019.