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Debate In Springfield Over Police Commission

A debate rages in Springfield, Massachusetts over who should run the police department – a five-member part-time commission, or a single all-powerful police commissioner.  A showdown vote between the city council and the mayor looms next month.

       The Springfield City Council’s Public Safety Committee opted to make no recommendation on an ordinance to establish a police commission following a public hearing.  More than a dozen people spoke to the committee Thursday night with most advocating for a civilian commission to run the police department, claiming it would result in transparency and greater public accountability.

       The ordinance is sponsored by six of the 13 city councilors.  Councilor Tom Ashe, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, who opposes a police commission, said it will be a close call when the full council votes on the issue.

      " Certainly a passionate issue on both sides, people have strong feelings and I am sure when it gets to the full council we will have a lively debate there."

      Springfield had a police commission until a decade ago when it was dissolved in favor of a police commissioner. Police Commissioner William Fitchet, who has had the job since 2006, is planning to retire later this year.

      The ordinance to create a police commission would need nine votes, in reality, to become law because Mayor Domenic Sarno has vowed to veto any attempt to establish a police commission.  The commission, as proposed by the council ordinance, would be appointed by the mayor and have the authority to set policy, hire, promote, and discipline police officers. A police chief would direct the day-to-day operations of the department.

       City Solicitor Ed Pikula, who advised the council that a police commission could violate the powers given the mayor under the city charter, urged councilors to work with  Sarno to strengthen an existing civilian advisory board that reviews allegations of police misconduct and makes recommendations to the police commissioner.

       " That is what is missing -- the legitimacy this council can add to the process by turning an executive order into an ordinance."

       Commissioner Fitchet urged councilors to keep a single person in charge of the department.

       " If you are going to have the responsibility, which is awesome, then you should have the authority."

       Julian Tynes, a Springfield resident and former chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, said the current system is not serving the city well.

       " I believe what we are talking about is accountability and the public feeling that this is my representative."

       Several speakers said members of Springfield’s black and Hispanic communities fear the police. Imani Cosby said that could change if a diverse commission was put in charge.

       " I want to live in a community where I can feel comfortable with my police officers and I don't have that right now."

       The union that represents Springfield police officers endorses the change to a police commission. Union president Joe  Gentile said police believe it will help build trust with the community.

       " We are not afraid of having citizens look at the work we do."

       Support for the ordinance creating a police commission came in a letter to the city council from the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, and from the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO.

       The full council is expected to take up the ordinance at its next scheduled meeting March 3

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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