Councilors Look To Strip Police Commissioner Of Disciplinary Powers
The case of a police detective who threatened to kill two teenagers but was not fired and a ruling by a federal judge in an excessive force lawsuit have reignited debate in Springfield, Massachusetts over who should investigate complaints of police brutality.
A legislative effort is being led by Springfield City Councilor Justin Hurst to strip Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri of his authority to discipline police officers. Hurst said he has lost faith in the commissioner because Barbieri did not fire the police detective who threatened to kill and plant drug evidence on two teenagers.
"Somebody needs to step up and be a leader," said Hurst. " Commissioner Barbieri clearly failed and the mayor is not too far behind him."
Hurst said he is consulting other councilors about changing the way the city handles complaints against police officers. Barbieri, as police commissioner, has total authority to discipline officers for misconduct. Complaints are investigated by a police department internal affairs unit and a mayor-appointed citizens advisory board.
Critics of the current system have long argued for a civilian police review board “with teeth.”
" My hope is that there will be enough councilors who are so disappointed about what the Community Police Hearing Board has not done that they will be adamant about having a police commission," said Hurst.
Because no formal complaint was ever filed, the Community Police Hearing Board did not take up the case of Det. Gregg Bigda. His threats against two teenagers who had been arrested for stealing an unmarked police car were recorded by a video camera in a police holding cell. Bigda was suspended for 60 days without pay.
His actions have jeopardized an unknown number of drug cases because his credibility as a potential witness has been challenged by defense attorneys.
Springfield Police Department records, revealed during the course of a pending federal lawsuit alleging police brutality, detailed 131 civilian complaints had been made against seven police officers that resulted in just five findings against the officers.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson said the records show “what appears to be a consistent pattern of rejecting civilian complaints against police officers.”
Mayor Domenic Sarno denied there is any reluctance by the Springfield Police Department to discipline officers who cross the line.
" I reiterate I am proud of our police department," said Sarno. " This is not systemic nor symbolic of the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line day in and day out."
Speaking with reporters after a grant announcement in a city park, Sarno strongly defended the city’s handling of excessive force complaints as well as the judgement of Commissioner Barbieri when it comes to deciding if police were justified in using force when apprehending a criminal suspect.
" They don't go as choir boys. They become combative at times," Sarno said referring to people the police try to arrest. " I have to make sure we keep our law abiding citizens safe and make sure our police officers get home safe to their families too."
The debate over police discipline practices in Springfield is not new and has been argued on-and-off for more than a decade.
City Council President Mike Fenton led an unsuccessful effort in 2014 to create a civilian-led police commission that would have the power to hire and fire police officers.
" These most recent events continue to highlight the failure of the current system we have," said Fenton.
The city’s attorney argued in 2014 that stripping the police commissioner of the authority to discipline police officers would violate Barbieri’s employment contract with the city.