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Police Misconduct Allegations Brought Calls In 2016 For Change In Supervision

   A serious rift opened between the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts and the city council in 2016 over the issue of police supervision.  It threatened to pit the city’s executive and legislative branches against each other in court.

     The Springfield City Council voted to establish a five-member civilian board of police commissioners to oversee the city’s police department after questioning how police misconduct is being addressed.  The ordinance passed over the veto of Mayor Domenic Sarno.

     The impetus for the council action was a video-recorded interrogation of two teenage car theft suspects by a detective who threatened to kill the youths and plant drug evidence on them.  The actions of Detective Gregg Bigda imperiled pending drug cases where he was a prosecution witness.

    City Councilor Justin Hurst and several of his colleagues were outraged when they found out that Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri had punished Bigda with only a 60-day suspension.

    " I think we have to ask ourselves when it comes to this case:  At what point, what standard is there when the commissioner feels a cop should be terminated?" said Hurst.

    Mayor Sarno strongly defended Barbieri, even as reports surfaced of other alleged incidents of police misconduct that had gone unpunished.  

    " This is not symbolic nor systematic of our Springfield Police Department," said Sarno.

    City Council President Mike Fenton, who had tried before to put a civilian board in charge of the police department, said this time he had the votes to do it.

    "We believe that by enacting this legislation it will restore and preserve the good name of the Springfield Police Department," said Fenton.

   After his veto was overridden, Sarno declared the ordinance establishing a board of police commissioners, whom he must appoint, to be invalid.

   "I want the professionals to run the police department and leave the politics out of it," said Sarno.

   The standoff over implementing the ordinance sets the stage for a possible lawsuit.

   The social justice movement Black Lives Matter inspired rallies, marches and vigils in the region following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, both at the hands of police officers.

    Close to 400 people rallied in front of Springfield City Hall to listen to speeches, poetry, songs and chants.

   A Black Lives Matter banner was hung across a street in downtown Amherst with the endorsement of the Amherst Chief of Police Scott Livingstone.

   " I appreciate my agency being included, "  Livingstone said at a ceremony to dedicate the banner.

     A commission formed with the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, the leadership of the legislature, and the state’s top judge, spent most of 2016 taking an in-depth look at the Massachusetts criminal justice system.   Their work is expected to be the basis for major legislation that will be filed in 2017.


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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