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Mayor Sarno Defends Process For Picking New Police Commissioner


A 26-year veteran of the police department in Springfield, Massachusetts has been picked to be the next police commissioner.  It is a high-profile post in a city where public safety has consistently ranked as the number one issue.

Springfield Police Deputy Chief John Barbieri will be promoted to commissioner by Mayor Domenic Sarno.  The announcement Wednesday preempted a vote by the city council to put control of the police department in the hands of a civilian board.  Sarno, who tapped Barbieri over two other deputy chiefs with more seniority, called him a “progressive and innovative leader.”

" I am humbly honored to have been selected the next Springfield police commissioner," said Barbieri.

Barbieri, who will succeed Commissioner William Fitchet when he retires at the end of May, said he has a five-point plan to reduce crime in Springfield that involves more proactive patrols and real-time responses to crime trends.

" If somebody breaks into your house, you may be satisfied if someone is caught. But, if the police are on top of their game and your house is never broken into then you will be  a satisfied city resident. I want people to be satisifed with their police service and happy to live in the city of Springfield."

Barbieri said during the two-month transition period he will make details of his crime-fighting plan public, and will meet with community leaders and activists, including those who were critical of the process of picking the new commissioner.

" I am a new police commissioner and I have to work to earn the department and the public's respect and trust."

Barbieri’s appointment  was praised by Jose Claudio, an activist in Springfield’s North End  neighborhood, where Barbieri has directed an innovative community policing program that is credited with dramatically reducing gang violence.

" He really cares about the city. He cares about every individual. It is going to make a big difference in the city of Springfield. Good, good appointment by the mayor."

Barbieri joined the Springfield Police Department in 1988. He has been a supervisor for the last 19 years and was appointed a deputy chief in 2009.  Sarno conducted closed-door interviews with the department’s three deputy chiefs, the only candidates for the job of police commissioner.

The city council approved a non-binding resolution asking for a nationwide search for the next police commissioner. Community groups including the Springfield NAACP chapter and Arise for Social Justice called for a more open process to select the next commissioner, but Sarno refused.

" I acted under the authority as mayor. Some of these groups have met with me, so I have heard their concerns and constructive criticisms."

Michaelann Bewsee, director of Arise, said she would withhold judgment on Barbieri’s appointment until she learns more about his strategies for law enforcement. She decried the lack of transparency in the selection of the police commissioner.

" I hope this process will never be replicated again. That might mean we need a mayor who is more open to community input than Mayor Sarno has been so far."

A majority of the city councilors co-sponsored an ordinance to replace the office of police commissioner with a five-member appointed board of civilians. A special meeting had been scheduled for Friday to vote on the ordinance.  But City Council President Mike Fenton cancelled the meeting on Wednesday saying Sarno’s appointment of a new police commissioner preempted Friday’s vote.

Fenton said he would continue to work to make the police department more accountable to the public.

" I am happy to entertain compromises on this subject of a police commission. I think there is a variety of hybred approaches that can be taken."

The incoming commissioner, Barbieri, said he would continue the policy of Commissioner Fitchet and work with a civilian board that holds hearings on cases of alleged police misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations to the commissioner.

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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