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Over City Council Objections Mayor Moves Toward Appointing Police Commissioner

WAMC

The mayor and the city council in Springfield, Massachusetts remain at odds over the future leadership of the police department. Councilors say they intend to consider establishing a five-member commission to oversee the department, while the mayor is intent on  keeping a single police professional in charge.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is moving ahead with plans to appoint a new police commissioner to succeed Commissioner William Fitchet who is retiring in June. Sarno said he will interview the department’s three current deputy chiefs and elevate one of them to the rank of commissioner.

The City Council approved a non-binding resolution 8-3 this week that called on Sarno to delay the appointment of a new police commissioner and open the job up to applicants from outside the department, which Sarno has steadfastly refused to do.

The council had been expected to vote on a resolution to establish a five-member commission that would be in charge of the police department, but it was postponed because two city councilors were absent.  Sarno has vowed to veto any ordinance establishing a police commission.

Seven city councilors have voiced support publicly for a police commission – two votes short of the number required to override a veto.  City Council President Mike Fenton, who supports creating a police commission, said it is an issue of public accountability.

City councilor Tom Ashe, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, is one of three councilors who want a single commissioner left in charge of the police department.

Councilors Kenneth Shea and Tim Allen are undecided.

Even if the council voted to override the mayor’s threatened veto there could be further legal impediments to the creation of a police commission.  The city solicitor has advised the council that a police commission established over the objections of the mayor would violate the city charter.  It could violate the employment contract of the police commissioner, exposing the city to a costly lawsuit.

Springfield had a police commission that was abolished and replaced by a police commissioner and a civilian review board to settle a 2004 excessive force complaint brought by the Pastors Council and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. 

At a public hearing last month nearly two dozen people spoke in favor of re-establishing the police commission. Several said members of Springfield’s black and Hispanic communities fear the police.

Robert Jackson, who serves on the Civilian Police Hearing Board, urged people to have faith in the existing board to impartially investigate complaints against the police.

Commissioner Fitchet said he varied on just one disciplinary recommendation from the board and that was to impose a stricter sanction than what was suggested.

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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