(The Center Square) – Springfield Police Chief Richard Lewis has been placed on administrative leave as the department faces scrutiny over its policing of a racial justice protest last summer.
The news was announced by Springfield City Manager Nancy Newton on Monday afternoon weeks after a lawsuit was filed in federal court this month alleging the Springfield Police Department (SPD) conspired to violate civil right laws during a July 29 protest organized by a social justice group called Black Unity.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed by the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC), accused Springfield police officers of colluding with counter protesters, assaulting demonstrators, and denying the press access to the protest.
Lewis, who made arrests at the scene, was among the 24 members of the SPD listed as defendants in the lawsuit. He will be succeeded by SPD Lieutenant Matt Neiwert while on leave.
In response to the public outcry over the July protest, the city commissioned an external investigation of the incident. Its lead investigator, Rick Braziel, issued 38 recommendations to improve the SPD's procedures and ethical standards.
Those recommendations included reworking the SPD's interview process for its internal investigations, which Braziel believed were laden with leading questions.
He also recommended SPD officers policing protests dress in uniform in light of social media posts showing several officers at the July protest dressing in plain clothes.
Moreover, Braziel stressed the need for officers to conduct themselves in a more respectful manner while policing protesters. Those officers should not include the chief of police, Braziel wrote, to avoid diminishing the office's neutrality in police misconduct investigations.
“Public trust, particularly in demonstrations, requires that SPD officers remain neutral and unbiased in their interactions with protesters and the community,” Braziel wrote. “The use of force and complaint investigative processes must be independent, above reproach and unbiased.”
In that same report, Braziel concluded that one SPD officer was justified in using a taser against protester Tyshawn Ford, but suggested further investigations are needed to determine his justification for kneeling on Ford afterwards. Braziel also found another SPD officer used appropriate force punching a female protester in the face from behind a police barricade while struggling to maintain his baton.
At a March 8 news conference, CLDC Executive Director Lauren Regan dismissed Braziel's report as a worthless public relations campaign by the city.
“Whenever the police are policing the police, we know that they’re not going to actually call each other out," Regan said. "They’re on the same team. We expect the Braziel report to be a whitewash and we would never rely on that for this case.”
To date, the SPD has not claimed any wrongdoing in its handling of the July 29 protest.