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Springfield City Council, Mayor Sarno At Odds Over Proposed Police Commission


      Responding to recent allegations of police misconduct, the Springfield City Council has taken an initial step toward having a civilian board oversee the department. 

       The Springfield City Council on a voice vote Monday night gave first-step approval to an ordinance that would place a five-member Board of Police Commissioners in charge of all police personnel decisions, including who gets hired to be a cop, who gets promoted, and what discipline is ordered in cases of misconduct.

     Mayor Domenic Sarno issued a statement Tuesday repeating his strong opposition to a civilian police commission and claiming the council was attempting to usurp his legal authority as the city’s chief executive to determine how municipal departments are organized.

       Councilor Melvin Edwards is one of 10 co-sponsors of the ordinance that would replace the appointed police commissioner with the civilian board.

    "What we are looking for is to have more eyes doing this and a diversity of opinion as to whether people should be employed or not," said Edwards.

    The move to increase civilian oversight of the police department began after reports that a police detective, who had been video-recorded threatening to kill and plant drug evidence on two juveniles during an interrogation, was  ordered to serve a 60-day suspension, but not fired.

   " Whatever we are doing right now is not working, and that is why we are having this conversation about a new commission because what we have in place is broken," said Edwards.

    If the ordinance to create a police commission is finalized, it would not take effect until Commissioner John Barbieri’s current employment contract expires in 2019.  The day-to-day management of the police department would be put in the hands of a police chief appointed under Civil Service regulations.

    Springfield had a civilian police commission until about a decade ago when it was eliminated by the state-appointed control board that was running the city at the time.

   City Councilor Tom Ashe, the chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, opposes the move to revive the police commission.

  " The national trend is going away from civilian commissions doing that kind of police work," said Ashe.  " We are not making a healthy effort going back to that."

   The proposed ordinance needs another vote by the 13-member council.  That could occur at the next regular meeting on Dec. 5.

   If all 10 co-sponsors continue to support the ordinance, it would survive an expected veto by Mayor Sarno.

   The fate of the proposed police commission will likely be decided in court, according to City Council President Mike Fenton.

   " We believe this is consistent with the spirit and intent of the ( city) charter and by preserving the appointment powers of the mayor we are  preparing ourselves adequately for a potential legal challenge," said Fenton .

   Fenton is spearheading the police commission plan, arguing it will bring transparency and fairness to police supervision and discipline.

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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