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Return Of Police Commission Considered


The mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts and the city council appear to be on a collision course over control of the police department. Councilors are looking into putting a civilian board in charge of the police, while the mayor wants the department run by a law enforcement professional.

            The city council is looking into resurrecting the five-member Springfield Police Commission, which was disbanded a decade ago in favor of a single police commissioner appointed by the mayor. Six councilors on the 13-member body, including council president Mike Fenton have co-sponsored an ordinance to bring back the part-time commission which would have powers to set department policy, hire, promote, and discipline police officers.

  " Those decisions belong in a public forum."

   Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has warned he will veto the proposed ordinance if it reaches his desk.

    " Let the professionals run the division and keep the politics out of it. It has worked so far."

   This is not the first attempt to revive some form of a civilian police commission in Springfield.  But, when a proposed ordinance was debated in 2011, the city law department advised it would violate the contract of Police Commissioner William Fitchet.

   Councilors advocating now for a police commission see an opening because Fitchet is planning to retire in June.  Sarno said he plans to appoint one of the department’s three deputy chiefs to be the next commissioner.

   " I am on the line too. The buck stops with me."

   Community activists decried the end of civilian oversight of the Springfield police, contending that complaints from the public about police misconduct would not be adequately addressed.  Council president Fenton said he does not believe that concern has been borne out.

   " I have full faith in the commissioners ability to make discipline decisions and I have no gripes with how he has handled himself. My gripe is the decisions should be made in the light of day."

   A seven-member advisory board appointed by the mayor examines excess use of force complaints against police officers and makes non-binding recommendations to the police commissioner. Sarno said that system will continue with the next police commissioner.

     " The commissioner has followed the edicts of the civilian review board and even been harsher in some cases."

      The public safety committee of the Springfield City Council is reviewing the ordinance to create a police commission and requested a legal opinion from the city solicitor.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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