In the wake of complaints about officer discipline, the latest development in a long-running dispute over organization of the Springfield Police Department is going down: City Council President Michael Fenton said that he has the votes necessary to shut down the Community Police Hearing Board and reinstate a civilian police commission in the city.
In a Nov. 9 press conference, Fenton announced that 10 members of the city council plan to co-sponsor legislation to abolish the position of police commissioner and return to a civilian police commission — like the one Springfield had before 2006 — at the end of Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s term on May 31, 2019. Fenton said that he has the supermajority needed within the city council to override a presumptive veto of the plan by Mayor Domenic Sarno.
The police department has come under scrutiny for its handling of complaints of police misconduct. Fenton and others on the city council have been pushing for a return to the civilian review board model for years, but the scandal around alleged leniency toward Det. Gregg Bigda — caught on tape in February threatening teen suspects — has given the movement renewed momentum.
Fenton and many of the ordinance’s co-sponsors have argued that the the commissioner has too much authority over how complaints are handled, leading to a lack of transparency and accountability within the department.
“The practical purpose of the system, in my opinion, is to meet the political goals of the day and not to actually administer discipline and justice,” said Fenton in an interview last week. “I think what’s clear is that there is a breakdown of our internal systems when it comes to administering discipline fairly in the police department.”
Ten of 13 city councilors are co-sponsoring the bill: Fenton, Adam Gomez, Melvin Edwards, Henry Twiggs, Bud Williams, Timothy Allen, Orlando Ramos, Justin Hurst, Marcus Williams, and Kateri Walsh. The ordinance is also backed by State Rep. Joe Tosado and Henry Thomas, president of the Urban League. First reading of the bill is scheduled to take place at the City Council meeting Monday, Nov. 14.
Because the Advocate went to print hours before Wednesday’s announcement, the paper received information about the proposed ordinance under the terms of an embargo. Therefore, this article does not contain direct reaction from police about the possible change in governance.
The proposed police department ordinance would establish a five-member civilian board appointed by the mayor. The move would divide the leadership of the nearly 500-officer department between the new police commission and a police chief. The return to a police commission would reverse a 2006 action by the state Finance Control Board, which abolished the police chief model in favor of the commissioner model when the city fell into receivership. At the time, MassLive reported that members of the Finance Control Board were swayed to revamp the department by allegations of police misconduct.
Currently, the power to hire, fire, discipline, or promote officers rests solely in the hands of the police commissioner. The Community Police Hearing Board — which Sarno established by executive order in 2010 — is made up of seven volunteers who are appointed by the mayor and serve at his discretion. The CPHB is tasked with evaluating whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation against an officer for misconduct when a civilian or internal complaint has been lodged.
Barbieri recently announced that the department would begin to review the practices of its own Internal Investigation Unit following a ruling by a federal court magistrate in October which detailed a pattern of ignoring civilian complaints — 131 of which were against just seven officers.
Captain Larry Brown is head of the Internal Investigations Unit. He says that the department takes civilian complaints seriously and says that the police commissioner model was replaced because it was ineffective.
“Anything that’s reduced to writing we investigate,” he said. “If there’s something wrong, then we investigate it. We want the same thing. If there’s any officer out there that’s doing the wrong thing, we want to know about it. We encourage people to make complaints if they’re being mistreated or an officer is doing something wrong.”
Brown says that every complaint the internal unit investigates is directed to the community hearing board.
Hector Zavala, the hearing board’s chairman said the board and the police have a good info-sharing relationship.
“I think that the police department is extremely open with us,” he said. “Anything that we need, we get.”
Complaints of police misconduct and the ongoing scandal around how problems on the force were handled have unsettled the community and created a stark division. There are some members of the Springfield community who are supportive of police and others who are critical.
On Oct. 21, for example, protestors took to State Street to call for an end to police brutality and the resignation of Commissioner Barbieri.
On Oct. 26, Springfield Technical Community College hosted a discussion called “Resisting Police Violence in Springfield and Beyond,” featuring Kissa Owens as a panelist. She’s the mother of Delano Walker, a 15-year-old who was struck and killed by a passing vehicle after officers stopped him and a group of friends while riding their bikes in 2009. Testimonies by officers and witnesses conflicted about exactly how Walker ended up beneath a Toyota Camry travelling up East Columbus Avenue that night, and five years later, a federal jury found that Walker’s civil rights had been violated by Springfield Police Officer Sean Sullivan. Owens was awarded $1.3 million in damages.
But on the evening of Nov. 3, at a meeting of the South End Citizens’ Council at which both Mayor Sarno and Commissioner Barbieri spoke, a spirit of teamwork prevailed as city officials and citizens applauded one another’s work. The meeting was mostly devoted to the discussion of changes in neighborhood policing tactics in the run-up to the the opening of the MGM Casino. Barbieri did briefly acknowledge the strain on community-police relations.
“The vast majority of the officers that work here remember their oath. They swore to protect and serve and they understand that this is public service,” Barbieri told the crowd. “For that 1 percent that don’t get it, we’ll deal with them.”
Don Perry is the founder and director of Project Operation Change, a campaign that advocates for justice system reform. He helped organize the discussion at STCC and says that Springfield has a police brutality problem, but he likes that local politicians are taking action.
“I think that there needs to be transparency and accountability,” Perry said. “There have to be checks and balances. These officers that have been rogue or transgressive or whatever need to be dealt with in the same way as anyone else.”
Springfield Police Department spokesman Sgt. John Delaney said the department is forthcoming with the public.
“We have a very transparent department. Nothing gets swept under the rug here,” he said.
Delaney said he couldn’t comment on any of the ongoing investigations around allegations of police misconduct in the city, but said that he sees neither a breakdown in community relations nor a systemic problem within the department.
“There seems to be a very vocal minority of people out there that don’t like the police,” Delaney said. “I guess it’s that way across the country. I guess it’s a flavor of the month type of thing. Police bashing time. But you know what? We still answer 911 calls out there protecting and serving the public in Springfield, people that live and work here.”
Despite the outcry and division, Kissa Owens has reached her own conclusions. She told the audience at the discussion that police officers are a necessary and vital part of the community.
“We need police,” Owens said. “I don’t think it’s the uniform itself. I think it’s the person behind the uniform… I think people put on a uniform and they feel like they have a little bit more power than if they didn’t have that uniform.”
Contact Peter Vancini at firstname.lastname@example.org.