Editorial: Policing the Police in Springfield

Last week, 14 Springfield police officers were indicted by a Worcester-based grand jury. It was in connection with a 2015 alleged assault on four people following a disagreement at a city bar. Some are charged with assault and battery, and others for covering it up.

Since then, Western Mass News has reported that several of the indicted officers have had additional complaints against them since 2015, one of which includes being accused of rape. The paperwork obtained by the TV station was heavily redacted, according to the report, including what the final decisions were by the police department in how to discipline the officers.

Policing the police has been a consistent issue for the city of Springfield, as it has for departments across the country. The Valley Advocate in 2016 undertook an investigation of the city’s Community Police Hearing Board, a group of citizens tasked with providing oversight of police complaints.

The board, created by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2010, releases annual reports detailing the numerous complaints against police over the previous year. The most recent report — for the 2017 calendar year — was released last May. Quarterly reports, which include a basic spreadsheet that give the bare facts about incidents filed that quarter, are released more frequently. The most recent quarterly report details the last three months of 2018, and is dated January 22, 2019.

There has always been a need for an active board of this kind. The Advocate’s 2016 look at the board was titled “Watchdog or Lapdog?” and included comments from individuals who had no trust in the process.

At the time, the board was slow to release their annual reports. The first quarterly reports were filed shortly after the Advocate piece.

As Sarno himself has said, it is not a matter of whether there should be such a board at this point, but how the board should be constituted and what authority it should have.

But questions remain about how effective the board is, how the board should be put together, and whether it can be made easier for people to file complaints. One idea Sarno has opposed is to create a civilian police review commission to oversee discipline, which is now overseen by the police commissioner.

At the time the Community Police Hearing Board was created, the department was reeling from public outcry over a 2009 beating of Melvin Jones III, a black motorist struck 20 times with a flashlight by former Springfield police officer Jeffrey Asher. In 2011, Michael Ververis sued the city after he alleges four Springfield officers dragged him out of his SUV, kicked him, and choked him into unconsciousness before charging him with resisting arrest and other crimes that were later dismissed. The city settled the lawsuit for $175,000.

The 2015 incident leading to last week’s indictments has so far cost the city much more — more than ¾ of a million dollars and counting.

Well before that, the department was under scrutiny for a 1994 incident during which an officer shot an unarmed black man, Benjamin Schoolfield, when the van he was driving was reported stolen, a report that later turned out to be false. A grand jury found that the shooting by the officer, Dan Brown, was an accident, and did not prosecute him.

Police officers are held to a high standard with regard to trust and honesty, but there has been a long history of abuse of power in police departments, Springfield’s among them.

It’s a new day at the Springfield Police Department, as Cheryl Clapprood is serving as acting commissioner following the recent retirement — after 31 years with the department — of former Commissioner John Barbieri in February.

That retirement took place amid several department scandals, including the 2015 incident, but also videos published by MassLive showing a police officer grabbing a man by the throat in the police station lobby, as well as two Springfield police officers — Gregg Bigda and former detective Steven Vigneault — being under federal indictment for civil rights violations.

In her statement about the indictments last week, Clapprood appropriately said she plans to move forward with disciplinary action on each officer involved as soon as evidence becomes available to the department, and that in the meantime officers are being suspended without pay.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a light on police violence and oversight, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, in part through the recent indictments, is doing so as well. The question for Springfield’s leadership, including its police department leadership, is whether they can retain the community’s trust.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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