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City Council Votes To Put Civilian Board In Charge Of Springfield Police Department


   The city council and the mayor in Springfield, Massachusetts are on a collision course over control of the police department.  The dispute could be settled in court.

   The Springfield City Council voted 10-2 Monday night to give final approval to an ordinance that would create a five-member board of civilians to oversee the police department and make all personnel decisions.

  " I am thrilled with the result," said  City Council President Mike Fenton.

       He and the other nine co-sponsors of the ordinance believe the current system, where a single police commissioner is ultimately responsible for hiring, promoting, and disciplining officers, as well as being in charge of day-to-day operations, is not working.

   "It has a lot to do with transparency and fairness and making sure there is accountability in the system," said Fenton.

  A police commission was once in charge of the Springfield Police Department, but it was abolished a decade ago by a state-appointed control board that was running the city at the time.  A civilian advisory board was later created to review police misconduct complaints and make non-binding recommendations to the police commissioner.

The impetus for bringing back the police commission started last September after reports of an apparently illegal interrogation of two juvenile car theft suspects by a Springfield narcotics detective, who threatened to kill the youths.  The detective, whose actions have threatened several pending drug cases, was suspended, but not fired by Police Commissioner John Barbieri.

Several councilors spoke passionately during Monday night’s debate about changing the current system.   City Councilor Melvin Edwards said he is “desperate” for a change.

" Whatever we are doing right now is not working, " said Edwards. " What we have in place is broken."

Others, including City Councilor Adam Gomez, said their votes were in response to the demands of their constituents.

" No way no how are we vilifying our police department or anybody in government, " said Gomez. "What we are trying to accomplish here is to make sure the people are being heard."

The proposed ordinance now faces a possible veto from Mayor Domenic Sarno.  In a statement issued last month after the council gave initial approval to the ordinance, Sarno said an appointed police commission would interject politics into the police department.  Sarno and City Solicitor Ed Pikula  claim the ordinance usurps the mayor’s authority under the city charter.

Pikula said the ordinance, even if the council overrode a mayoral veto, would be invalid.

Fenton, in a brief interview, said he hoped a way can be found to avert a legal battle between the city’s executive and legislative branches.

"  I sure hope so," he said, adding " We are always to open to compromise. That is the beauty of the democratic process, and we are hoping we can reach some type of agreement with the mayor. Short of that, this is likely to go to litigation."

   Language in the police commission ordinance approved by the council delays its effective date until the expiration of Barbieri’s current employment contract with the city in 2019.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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