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Sarno names Akers as Springfield's next top cop, the department's first African American leader

Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Superintendent Lawrence Akers (left), with Mayor Domenic Sarno, on Jan. 15, 2024, at the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
Jill Kaufman
Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Superintendent Lawrence Akers (left), with Mayor Domenic Sarno, on Jan. 15, 2024, at the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

For the first time in the city's history, an African American officer will lead the Springfield, Massachusetts, police department.

Mayor Domenic Sarno made the announcement on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — naming Deputy Chief Lawrence Akers as the next police superintendent.

"Yet another milestone and another first my administration is proud to usher in," Sarno said in a statement. "Always the gentleman, [Akers is] a good man, good cop and a good leader."

The mayor's announcement said Akers is a 38-year veteran of the department, who's father was also a Springfield officer. Akers has supervised the metro unit, as well as the gaming enforcement unit at MGM Springfield casino. He's also a former member of the traffic and motorcycle unit.

"To serve as the top public safety official for the City of Springfield, commanding the brave and dedicated men and women who serve and protect our community, is a great honor," Akers said in the statement. "To think that this second-generation Springfield police officer and motorcycle cop will serve as Police Superintendent is a great honor."

'Compassion and empathy that he shows to the community'

"I've witnessed [Akers] personally on some difficult situations out on the street, how he's handled them," Sarno said Monday at an MLK Day event. "But just as important, his compassion and empathy that he shows to the community."

The mayor, in his written statement, noted that Akers has the respect of rank-and-file officers.

"This is important so that we can have a smooth transition, especially as we continue to implement Police Superintendent Clapprood and DOJ’s initiatives and reforms,” Sarno said.

The mayor was referencing a consent decree requiring reforms in the department. That followed a scathing federal report in which investigators found officers in the now-disbanded narcotics unit often used excessive force, including punching in the face and aggressive take-downs, with no accountability.

Akers on Monday pledged to follow through on the promises contained in the consent decree.

"It's somewhat of a stigma on the city, but we're a much better city than what that makes it look like," he said. "It looks like maybe the city may not be doing something completely right. We are doing things right, we're growing, we're making things work, and we'll continue to do that as we have been doing."

The department is now also under the oversight of a civilian Board of Police Commissioners, the result of a high-profile fight between the City Council and the mayor that ended before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court mostly sided with the councilors and ordered Sarno to appoint members of the commission, although there remains a lot of uncertainty over its powers and management.

Akers replaces Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood. Facing a mandatory retirement age of 65, Clapprood is retiring this spring after 44 years with the Springfield police.

“Bitter-sweet, I will miss her, but she’s ready to call it a career and enjoy her retirement," Sarno said in the statement. "Throughout her career, Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood served with honor, distinction and with the utmost professionalism."

Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the city's NAACP chapter, welcomed the change and called Aker's appointment historic.

"We're at a crossroads in our city. With the police department currently under the scrutiny of the Department of Justice with this consent decree, it's a time for a change in leadership," Swan said. "I've called for a change in leadership of Cheryl Clapprood for some time now."

Swan said he's speaking with DOJ officials on Wednesday about the consent decree and believes Aker's announcement will be a topic of discussion.

'I got in my share of troubles, too'

Akers attended community stakeholder discussions, organized by the mayor's office, to address the surge of violence in the city last year. (Homicides in Springfield more than doubled from 2022 to 2023.) At a gathering in August, he pointed out he was born and raised in the city.

"I wasn't born a police officer, and I got into my share of troubles, too," he said at the time, calling for a targeted approach that allows law enforcement and community organizations to interact with young people before they are in trouble. "We have to get out and reach them first, before they get to the police."

"I'd like for them to come to me and ask me what it's like to be a police officer and saying they want to be a police officer," he said in August, "not yelling and screaming at me because I have to arrest them for doing something."

This story contains reporting from Karen Brown, Adam Frenier, Sam Hudzik, Jill Kaufman, Kari Njiiri, Elizabeth Román and Nirvani Williams.

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