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Springfield, Holyoke Police Forces Increasingly Diverse — But Progress Lags For Supervisors

Graduates of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Academy recite their oaths during their graduation ceremony at Symphony Hall on April 2, 2021.
Don Treeger
The Republican / masslive.com
Graduates of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Academy recite their oaths during their graduation ceremony at Symphony Hall on April 2, 2021.

Western Massachusetts police departments under court order to diversify are making progress, but police supervisors continue to be overwhelmingly white.

Springfield and Holyoke are among seven cities and towns in Massachusetts where police department hiring is still influenced by decades-old federal consent decrees. The decrees, which have been revised in recent years, direct state human resources officials to follow hiring ratios intended to prioritize Black and Latino candidates.

"When a police department or a fire department looks like the communities that they are to protect and serve, that helps increase that trust that the community must have," said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights and one of the attorneys now involved in the case. "It builds public confidence ... and instills that public confidence in government that is critical if our public safety agencies are to protect and serve the way they were designed to."

A 2016 report from a Department of Justice task force underscored that as a priority. The report said "greater workforce diversity alone cannot ensure fair and effective policing," but cited research demonstrating the advantages of hiring more females, racial minorities and officers with foreign-language skills.

The DOJ report was spurred by what it called "tragic events ... including officer-involved shootings and attacks on law enforcement officers, and the demonstrations and protests these incidents have spawned." Those events — the report said — drove issues, including police diversity, "from the periphery to the center of our public dialogue."

'Take the police exam and serve our Springfield'

Overall, the police force in Springfield is increasingly diverse. Numbers provided by the city in 2014 showed 58.3% of officers and 77.8% of supervisors were white non-Hispanic — a group representing only about a third of the city's population. By 2021, those percentages had decreased to 44.8% for officers and 70.1% for supervisors.

The continued disparity in supervisory numbers is not directly addressed by the consent decrees, according to Sellstrom, but he said the issue "bears further scrutiny."

"Because it's really a start-to-finish issue that you need to look at from entry-level, to retention, to promotion and on up the chain," Sellstrom said. "That's the only way that we're going to get true diversity in public safety agencies."

A statement from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno's office cited gradual progress. It said fewer than 4% of supervisors were racial or ethnic minorities in 1990. The figure was about 8% in 2000, about 15% in 2010 and about 30% now.

The mayor's office explained the lagging supervisory numbers by noting many officers of color have fewer years of service.

"What also needs to be taken into consideration is that because our department is so young, nearly 30% ... were not yet eligible to take the last promotional exam. You need to be a police officer for three years by the date of the exam," the statement read. "So while 55% of our patrol officers are Hispanic, Black or Asian, only 44% of our minority officers were eligible to take the last promotional exam due to having less than 3 years on the job."

That explanation does not necessarily tell the whole story, Sellstrom said, as retention could also be a factor.

"If you have processes that are fair and equal to all — you're creating an environment that is welcoming to all — then you would expect to see not only would officers of color remain on the force, but they are promoted just as they are [hired] in the entry-level positions," Sellstrom said.

Sellstrom's organization, Lawyers for Civil Rights, highlighted the lack of supervisory diversity in an April letter sent to a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Roderick Ireland, who has been working as a consultant for Springfield on policing issues. The letter laid out recommendations for how the city should respond to a July 2020 DOJ report about the Springfield police, which identified a pattern of excessive force in the narcotics division with no "meaningful" accountability.

Lawyers for Civil Rights also addressed diversity on the force.

"[I]t is not enough to simply hire women, Spanish speakers, and people of color onto the police force at the entry level," the letter said. "These individuals must be given an equal opportunity for personal and professional development."

Less than a week later, an op-ed from Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood appeared on MassLive. Clapprood described her department as "the most diverse police department in Massachusetts and likely New England."

To support that claim, a police spokesperson sent news clips and government web postings referencing other Massachusetts departments, with only Lawrence appearing to have a slighty higher percentage of officers of color. 

Sarno's office noted that he hired Clapprood, the city's first female police commissioner, and that she promoted Springfield's "first Black Deputy Chief, first Hispanic Captain, and the City’s first Latina Sergeant."

"From officers to supervisors," Sarno said, "we reflect our community and I urge our community members to take the police exam and serve our Springfield – as Uncle Sam would say, 'I/we need you!'"

Challenges in Holyoke

Holyoke has also seen a lot of growth in its numbers, both for patrol officers and supervisors of color. Alex Morse, who served as Holyoke's mayor from 2011 until this spring, talked about those changes in an interview last June, as protests around the country — including in Holyoke and Springfield — intensified calls for policing reforms. 

"Over the last nine years, we've gotten much closer to actually having a police department that reflects the diversity and lived experience of nearly 50% of our population in the city," Morse said. "And that has been an incredibly important value for me and for the team at City Hall."

Still, Morse acknowledged the city was well short of parity in the police department.

"I don't think I will be satisfied until at least 50% of our police department is reflective of the diversity of our of our community," said Morse, who is now town manager in Provincetown. "It's not just patrolmen, but making sure that Latino officers in the department have access to supervisor positions and promotions — to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and to chief."

Morse said he appointed the city's first police chief of Puerto Rican descent, Manny Febo, in 2018. Febo is retiring in July.

Consent decree filings

Lawyers for the state attorney general's office, along with those representing the plaintiffs in the civil suits, file an annual status report with the federal court.

Those filings compare the current makeup of each police department with parity benchmarks, which the court set in recent years in recognition that the qualified workforce for the job may not align with a city's overall population numbers.

"We jointly engaged the services of a labor economist who provided pro bono analysis of what the appropriate benchmark would be in each community," Sellstrom said.

In Springfield, the goal is set at 53.8% for the combined percentages of Black or African American, and Latino or Hispanic police officers. The city remained shy of that in 2020, at 50.8%, according to the court filings.

These numbers do not exactly align with those provided by the departments, as the court rulings only impact entry-level positions, and may not take into account recent police academy classes.

In Holyoke, the numbers provided in court filings show a marked increase in the past five years, but are still well below parity. Fewer than 37% of entry-level officers were identified as Black or African American, or Latino or Hispanic; the court-approved benchmark is 49.8%.

The consent decrees, which date back to lawsuits in the 1970s, previously involved more than 100 Massachusetts communities. In addition to Springfield and Holyoke, they currently cover police departments in Brockton, Chelsea, Lawrence, Randolph and Worcester, as well as fire departments in Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence and Springfield.

The most recent filing stated that applicable employees of Springfield's fire department who identified as Black or African American, or Latino or Hispanic, made up 58.7% of the department as of 2020. That's an increase from 47.6% in 2016, but short of the court-approved goal of 61.3%.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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