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Springfield City Council voices frustration over police commission's limited role

Members of the Springfield City Council listen to City Solicitor John Payne at the podium during a meeting on Wednesday, October 5.
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Focus Springfield
Members of the Springfield City Council listen to City Solicitor John Payne at the podium during a meeting on Wednesday, October 5.

Some Springfield City Councilors say they're frustrated over how limited the role for the newly formed police commission is. It was a subject for discussion during a special meeting Wednesday night.

The City Council won a legal battle earlier this year against Mayor Domenic Sarno in order to reestablish the board of police commissioners. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that Sarno must follow the ordinance.

The mayor had previously refused to appoint members to the police board, arguing the ordinance passed by the council violated Springfield’s charter. In March, following the high court's order, Sarno appointed police commissioners.

But on Wednesday, some city councilors said they were upset the police commission hasn’t been involved in talks between Springfield and the federal Department of Justice over implementation of a new consent decree governing certain police policies.

Other councilors said they were frustrated the board has been limited to handling only police discipline cases, and felt there hasn’t been much in the way of change.

Councilor Justin Hurst said the city ordinance covering the board called for it to be involved in issues like hiring and promotions. He said Sarno and his administration are trying to undermine the commission.

"We may not want to accept that reality...but that's the problem," Hurst said. "If it takes us going back to court to figure this out, then gosh doggone it, we have to go back to court. Because the community wants to see a difference, and right now, it just ain't happening."

City Solicitor John Payne, who has been serving as the law department’s liaison to the police commission, told councilors the SJC ruling was “opaque” when it came to the commission’s duties. He also said the panel's responsibilities could be revisited when Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood’s contract runs out in 2024.

Payne said he was hesitant to make any changes to duties spelled out in Clapprood's deal.

"Any attempt right now to change that, quite frankly, results in my opinion, in an interference with the contractual rights the city has with the superintendent, and I think opens up the city to potential liability,” Payne told the council.

The absence of the police commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting also became an issue. City Council President Jesse Lederman said he heard Tuesday night from the police commission chair, Gary Berte, that he would be attending. But neither Berte nor any of his colleagues appeared.

Earlier in the week, they were also invited to the council’s public safety committee meeting, but only one, Madeline Fernandez, attended.

Hurst accused the Sarno administration of telling police commissioners not to show up.

Councilor Victor Davila, chair of the public safety committee, was also frustrated. He said he believes police board members are qualified, but he also challenged them.

"They are not showing up at the table," Davila said. "They have got to show up at the table, the police commission. They gotta stop being, I have to say it, afraid of their own shadow."

He suggested to Lederman that the full council should invite the police commissioners to attend a future meeting.

"Believe me, they are going to be hard-pressed not to show up if this entire wise, humble body calls them and they don't show up," he said. "This is the second time in a row that they don't show."

Some of the commissioners did show up to an earlier public safety committee meeting and complained the city wasn't giving them enough in the way of resources to do their jobs.

As Wednesday's meeting wrapped up, Lederman expressed support for the police commission’s members.

"I see it as a very serious obligation of the City Council to make sure they have the support and resources that they need to be successful,” Lederman said. “That is part of the reason we want to have these checkpoints."

The "checkpoints" Lederman spoke of are quarterly meetings he’s planning to hold to review progress on the police commission and implementation of the federal consent decree.

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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