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Springfield Police Announce New Reforms And Investigation Unit, But Critics Remain

Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.
Hoang "Leon" Nguyen
Springfield Republican / masslive.com
Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.

The Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department announced it is eliminating the controversial narcotics unit and starting a new firearms investigation unit.

In a statement, the police department said the new unit “will be created to address the local angle of a disturbing nationwide increase in gun violence. The unit will investigate violent crime and gun offenses and work to aggressively remove illegal firearms from circulation.”

According to the department, Springfield police seized 275 illegal guns in 2020 and 112 so far in 2021.  A spokesperson said the new unit will begin in late July.

At the same time, Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood announced the end of the department’s narcotics unit with “the reallocation of narcotics investigation resources to regional and state partnerships.”

A scathing federal report last year accused narcotic officers of excessive force with little accountability.

For the past year, a number of activists, city councilors, and residents have called on the police department to be more transparent about reforms they are taking to address the report’s critiques.

City Councilor Justin Hurst has been a vocal critic of Clapprood and the department, claiming some officers act with "impunity," especially in light of the FBI investigation.

Hurst said he's glad for a new focus on gun violence, but said that doesn't solve all the department's problems.

“What the narcotics unit was doing reflected deep-seated cultural issues that have built up over time,” he said. “I don't know if changing the name of the unit eradicates the deep-seated issues that continue to be pervasive in the department. I don't believe that's going to happen. I think that's [only] going to happen with strong leadership.”

Hurst said he would also like assurances that the police department will continue to address the city’s problems with illegal narcotics.

“We still want the drugs off the street crime. So we still want those type of investigations to continue,” Hurst said. “We just want them done the right way.”

In a meeting last week, Clapprood met with some members of the City Council, following demands by Councilor Orland Ramos for better communication over police reforms. Both sides pledged cooperation going forward.

At the meeting, Clapprood announced progress on reforms, including an update on the use of chokeholds.

In a statement, the department said, “Though the department does not teach chokeholds, the new policy strictly regulates any use of a chokehold.”

The department said the use-of-force policy may be updated in the coming months if required by the police reform bill that passed in December and any new requirements from the Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC).

The department also announced updated training and policies for investigating incidents involving officers.

"Our updated use-of-force and internal investigation policies are in line with industry best practices,” Clapprood said in a statement, “and we will continue to evaluate these and other policies as we move through the state certification process and receive guidance on the Massachusetts police reform legislation."

“I'm pleased about all of the changes that they're putting in place,” said City Councilor Tracye Whitfield. But she added, "The reforms aren't the only thing that makes me uncomfortable. [Clapprood] thinks that there is no racism in the police department, and there definitely is racism in the police department. There's racism in almost every organization."

Clapprood had recently sent a letter to members of a senior citizens group in Springfield, claiming her department did not have systemic racism. It sparked a public protestand renewed calls for her firing.

The police department later sent NEPM a statement that said, “We acknowledge the endemic problems including systemic racism that have plagued the criminal justice system for far too long. We are committed to being an active participant in the conversation and movement to create not only a more fair and representative criminal justice system but to create a more open and inclusive society. “

Whitfield said that unlike Councilor Hurst, she’s not demanding Clapprood’s immediate removal — but rather, “I'm calling for her removal if she cannot implement these changes that need to happen.” 

“And it's not a personal attack on her, or her beliefs as a person,” Whitfield said. “But as leadership for the city of Springfield, there are certain things that you have to recognize and deal with to move the city forward, and to move the police department forward. And I just don't think that she's willing to accept what is right in [front of] her eyes in the community, and in the police department.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has repeatedly expressed support for Clapprood. A spokesperson said last month that Sarno has no intention to fire her.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.