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Police Hearing Board's Public Reports Overdue

City Hall in Springfield, Ma

The civilian board that investigates complaints against the police in Springfield, Massachusetts has not issued a public report about its work in almost two years. The mayor’s office says there is no target date for releasing the overdue reports that are supposed to come out annually.

The seven-member Community Police Hearing Board has been meeting regularly to review allegations of misconduct against Springfield police officers from members of the public. The hearings are closed proceedings. The last public report detailing the number and types of complaints reviewed by the board was released in March 2014.

City officials blame a paperwork bottleneck caused by a staff shortage in the city’s law department for holding up the release of what are supposed to be annual reports on the board’s work. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said he takes responsibility and acknowledges it is important for the “facts and figures” on the board’s work to be made public.

"We have to do better and we will do better on it moving forward," said Sarno.

The board was established by mayoral executive order in 2010 during a public uproar over the savage beating of a black motorist by a white police officer, who was later convicted of assault and tossed off the force.  It replaced the Community Complaint Review Board that the city established to settle a racial discrimination complaint against the Springfield Police Department that had been brought by an association of black clergy.

" It is a good checks and balances and I strengthened it with subpoena powers," said Sarno.

The last public report issued by the board covered its work in 2013. The report said 92 complaints were investigated with eight found to be justified.

Critics have assailed the board for its lack of authority to actually discipline police officers for misconduct.  The board makes recommendations to Police Commissioner John Barbieri, who typically accepts the findings, according to Sarno.

  Springfield City Council President Mike Fenton, who led an unsuccessful effort in 2014 to establish a five-member civilian commission to run the Springfield Police Department, said the lack of public reports for almost two years from the hearing board is “unacceptable.”

"To have a requirement that a report be issued once a year is no big deal, and to say it has not been done in two years because we've been too busy and we don't know when we are going to get to it is not fair to the public," added Fenton.

Fenton complained the lack of public reports from the police hearing board is just the latest example of the Sarno administration’s lack of commitment to boards and commissions. Fenton said the Residency Compliance Commission, the Ethics Commission, and the Youth Commission have languished for years because there have been no mayoral appointments.

Sarno, in a statement, said he is reviewing the status of all city boards and commissions.

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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