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The Short List Mulls Civilian Role For ‘Troubled’ Springfield Police Dept.

Next week, a lawsuit filed by the Springfield, Massachusetts, City Council against Mayor Domenic Sarno goes before a judge.

The council twice approved ordinances that would have provided for a civilian-led police commission.

Twice, Sarno has refused to appoint members, saying the law violates the city charter.

Attorney Tom Lesser is representing the council.

"It was the mayor's obligation to either appoint members of the board of police commissioners, or to go to court and say, 'The City Council didn't have the power to do that,'" Lesser said.

Sarno's attorneys argue only the mayor has the ability to hire or fire department heads. 

It's not every day one branch of municipal government sues the other.

Panelist Dave Eisenstadter said it makes sense to "zoom out a little bit."

"The police department needs reform, and it needs some civilian leadership," he said. "This is one of the most troubled departments in the state. You know, that report in July [PDF] just shows one aspect of how troubled the police department is."

Eisenstadter said perhaps the question of who has the power to appoint a police commission really is best settled by the courts. 

"If the mayor is not going to agree to this, I think, maybe some sort of city charter change is in order, because there's a real need for some some strong leadership, and some some reform at that police department," he said. 

There's long been a call for big changes at the Springfield Police Department — a department the ACLU of Massachusetts has called one of the worst in the country

Panelist Elizabeth Román said the case represents a demand for reform.

"As a city resident," she said, "I would say that I wish that my mayor and city councilors would be willing to look past these semantics of, 'Oh, this is what's right by the charter,' or not, and really collaborate together to come up with a solution that would make real change for the city, because the residents are clamoring for it. It's so needed."

Román said it's not just about who fills the role of police commissioner at a given moment.

"I mean, they are entrenched into the system," she said. "You need someone from the outside to come in and take a look at it. And right now, the simplest solution for that would be a civilian board."

Springfield, Massachusetts, police headquarters at 130 Pearl Street.
Credit Don Treeger / The Republican / Masslive.com
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The Republican / Masslive.com
Springfield, Massachusetts, police headquarters at 130 Pearl Street.

Speaking of the Springfield police, another officer has been criminally charged, this time for repeatedly using a stun gun on a pregnant woman during an arrest.

Officer Leon Davis was charged with assault and battery. Davis remains on the job on "restricted duty."

The officer's actions were caught on his body camera, and Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni called Davis' actions "excessive." The body camera footage is considered a public record and was released by the DA's office.

But Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood criticized Gulluni in the Springfield Republican for putting the video out there, saying the case was still under investigation.

In other news of the week, state officials in Massachusetts and Connecticut continue to work on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont announced the state was preparing for people 65 and over to register and get in line for the vaccine.

That's ahead of where Massachusetts is right now, though Governor Charlie Baker announced the state is setting up its first mass vaccination site at Gillette Stadium.

We wrap up with a recent study that says some New England states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, can be doing a better job with highway safety laws. The two states were knocked for their less-strict seat belt laws.

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Listen to The Short List podcast.

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Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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