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Regional News

Springfield Mayor Apologizes, Again Suspends Police Officers Charged With Perjury

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, at a press conference Tuesday, June 16, 2020.
Adam Frenier
/
NEPR
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, at a press conference Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

Five Springfield police officers who are currently indicted on perjury charges are once again suspended, two months after the police commissioner reinstated them. The officers are accused of trying to cover up a 2015 fight outside Nathan Bill's bar between off-duty police officers and four black men.

The officers were brought back on the job in April. At the time, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said she was doing so, in part, because of staffing concerns due to COVID-19. This caused backlash from the city council and community groups.

Now, after multiple protests calling for police accountability, Mayor Domenic Sarno said it was a mistake to reinstate the officers.

"My apologies," Sarno said at a press conference Tuesday. "I meant no disrespect or any ill intent to our black community on the reinstatement of the five officers who were involved in the Nathan Bill's incident." 

The Springfield NAACP is one group against the decision to bring the officers back. Its president, Bishop Talbert Swan, said Sarno made the right call to remove the officers. He also said the mayor was right to apologize.

"In as much as we are critical when we think that the mayor and the police department are not acting in the best interest of the community, we also commend them when they're doing the right thing," Swan said. "I think this was the right decision."

Swan had co-organized a protest march earlier this month, which began at Nathan Bill's. At the time, he compared Springfield to Minneapolis, which has experienced violent protests following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Swan told the crowd Springfield was "one incident away from a powder keg blowing up here."

After announcing the suspensions Tuesday, Sarno also declared racism a public health crisis in the city, and announced the establishment of an office of racial equity under the city's department of health and human services.

"This office will be charged with working with community groups, including our faith community, community based organizations, and businesses to bring back recommendations based on data to my administration," the mayor said. 

Continuing stand-off with city council

Sarno's press conference came several hours before the city council was poised to retain outside counsel in its longstansing dispute with the mayor over control of the police department.

The council has twice passed an ordinance restablishing a police commission to oversee the department. Sarno has refused to enact the measure, saying it goes against the city's charter. Sarno has said city residents have a say in the department through the community police hearing board, which considers complaints against officers.

On Tuesday, Sarno announced he would again propose an ordinance to give subpoena powers to the hearing board. He said strengthening the current review board would be the best way to go. 
 
"These are civilians, residents of the city of Springfield — a very, very diverse group — who take their job very seriously," Sarno said. "And being able to give them that subpoena power would be extremely important. I think that's what the council wants and we could solve that issue."

Sarno said it would be unfortunate if the council pursues legal action, but expressed confidence in his position.

"If a legal matter comes forward, I have strong confidence in my law department, headed by City Solicitor Ed Pikula, but we're not doing anything that is illegal or at all," Sarno said. "We're following the charter."

City Councilor Orlando Ramos, who leads the council's public safety committee, said Tuesday he was encouraged to see some movement by Sarno on police oversight. But he didn't back down on the police commission issue.

"This is the law that's on the books," Ramos said. "Until that issue is resolved, we can't move on to the next conversation. We have to resolve the issue on what happens when this law that's on the books hasn't been enforced."

The council passed the ordinance, in 2016 and 2018, twice overriding vetoes by Sarno. 

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