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Springfield City Council To Vote On Eliminating The Job Of Police Commissioner


   In the wake of scandal over alleged misconduct, the city council in Springfield, Massachusetts is poised to vote tonight to put a board of civilians in charge of all police department personnel decisions. The move is strongly opposed by the city’s mayor. 

  Springfield City Council President Mike Fenton said the proposed Board of Police Commissioners would have the power to hire, fire, and discipline police officers.  Those duties are currently handled by a police commissioner who is appointed by the mayor and is sometimes advised by a civilian board that can investigate complaints against police officers.

Fenton said a police commission will bring transparency and fairness to police oversight.

"Enacting this legislation will restore and preserve the good name of the Springfield Police Department," said Fenton.

The police department has been tarnished by revelations that a detective threatened to kill and plant drug evidence on two teenagers during an interrogation earlier this year that was video-recorded.  Police Commissioner John Barbieri has been sharply criticized for not firing the detective.

 Also, a federal judge in a ruling on a motion in a police brutality lawsuit said there appeared to be a consistent pattern of rejecting civilian complaints against Springfield police officers. A dozen police officers are reportedly under investigation for their roles in a fight outside a bar in April 2015.

" Recent events have exposed the failures and shortcomings of the current system," said Fenton.

Fenton said the council will take an initial vote Monday on the ordinance to establish the police commission.   He said 10 councilors – a so-called “super majority” – have co-sponsored the ordinance making it impervious to a mayoral-veto.

" This is legislation we have been working on for the better part of the last decade," said Fenton. " This is not a vote of no confidence in Commissioner Barbieri, this is about creating a better system."

  Fenton said the police commission may not take effect until 2019 when Barbieri’s current five-year employment contract with the city expires. Under the proposed ordinance, a police chief hired under Civil Service regulations would be in charge of day-to-day management decisions.

Mayor Domenic Sarno said the council’s proposal for a five-member board of police commissioners would inject “politics and patronage” into the police department.  Sarno said a modern urban police department should be run by a law enforcement professional.

" You have a commissioner who is in command and a civilian board with the only thing they have at stake is to make sure our officers are doing the right thing to protect our public," said Sarno.

A police commission oversaw the city’s police department until about a decade ago when it was disbanded by the state-appointed control board that was in charge of the city’s government at the time.

State Representative Jose Tosado, who served on the earlier police commission, said it is not a perfect system, but he believes it is better than what is in place now.

" It provides accountability, it provides transparency, and it allows citizens to have an input on policies and procedures at the Springfield Police Department," said Tosado.

Henry Thomas, president of the Urban League of Springfield, also endorsed a return to a civilian police commission, saying it would assure equitable treatment.

"Equitable treatment means not intimidating, not brutalizing, or doing anything that would be done under the color of law.   If we have a transparent system and a commission that has teeth than it will contain that type of behavior and weed it out when it does happen," said Thomas.

Members of the proposed police commission would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.

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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