Last week, Springfield mayor Domenic Sarno announced that he will appoint a new police commissioner from within the ranks of the Springfield Police Department. The announcement sparked controversy across the city. The larger issue is not whom he will appoint, but what the long-term result will be.
In 2009, the violent beating of a suspect, Melvin Jones, by then-Springfield police officer Jeffrey Asher (who was later tried and convicted for his crime) rekindled the fire in activists across the city, who demanded expanded oversight of the police department. Several groups and city councilors proposed returning to a five-member police commission, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, to oversee administrative operations of the police department, including hiring, firing, investigating accusations of misconduct and determining disciplinary action.
While a police commission overseeing the SPD existed until roughly 2006, when it was dissolved by the Springfield Finance Control Board, the Sarno administration has held that, though this type of body could be created through a charter change with a vote from the City Council, to do so would violate the terms of Police Commissioner William Fitchett’s contract. Instead, Mayor Sarno created the Community Police Hearing Board. This body has met infrequently and has only the authority to deliver recommendations to the mayor and commissioner, with whom the final disciplinary decisions still rest.
Now, with the impending retirement of Commissioner Fitchett and the expiration of his contract, the door has been opened for the restoration of the police commission. Last month the issue was brought before the City Council and referred to committee, and seems to have wide support with seven Council sponsors.
For decades now the police department has suffered from a disconnect with the public and been distracted by scandals, accusations of misconduct and a perception of weakness. Some of this is deserved; some is not. A police commission will restore public trust in our police department while allowing the department itself to function more effectively. It will create a better environment for officers, who will have a body to appeal to when they feel they have been treated unfairly. Furthermore, the chief will be able to focus less on administrative matters and will be removed from the political process, allowing for independence and professionalism.
Public safety is a much-discussed issue in Springfield—some concerns exaggerated, some not—but the safety of the public will never improve if we continue the same practices that have failed us for the last decade and a half. Our system is broken, both for the public and for police officers, the vast majority of whom serve our city selflessly and with honor. We now have an opportunity to mend it. But should Mayor Sarno appoint a new police commissioner with a new contract, that opportunity will be jeopardized
We as a city must not allow this opportunity for change to pass. The police department is far too important to the success of Springfield. We must demand progress to move our city forward, to move beyond the distractions of our past and focus on the potential of our future.•
Jesse L. Lederman is an activist and organizer in Springfield, and a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC.