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City Councilor Calls For Posthumous Promotion Of Black Police Officer To 'Right A Wrong'

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A posthumous promotion is being sought for an African-American member of the police department in Springfield, Massachusetts whom advocates say was denied the rank of captain because of his race.  But, the city’s top cop warns it would open a “Pandora’s box.”  

Springfield City Councilor Justin Hurst, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, is urging that Springfield Police Lt. Robert Caulton, a black officer who died in 2003, be posthumously promoted to the rank of captain.  A resolution authored by Hurst for consideration by the full council states that Caulton was “unfairly denied” that promotion in 1992 because of the “race politics” of the time.

" The fact that we have the opportunity to right a wrong with probably very little effort, althought certainly the (police) commissioner might disagree, I think we should," said Hurst.

Caulton joined the Springfield Police Department at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964.  After 18 years he rose to the rank of lieutenant. In 1992, Caulton passed the Civil Service exam for captain but was not picked to fill one of two open captain positions.  He retired in 1995 and died eight years later.

"He served the city well and served during a very difficult time for African-Americans to serve in the capacity he did," said Hurst. "There was a lot of tension. It had to have been pretty difficult."

Hurst said a posthumous promotion would not cost the city any money, but could buy the police department a lot of goodwill in the minority community.

" I think it sheds light on the need to get more minorities in administrative positions in the police department and I think it will go a long way not only for the police department but for the citizens when it comes to enabling trust," said Hurst.

At a recent meeting of the Public Safety Committee, Police Commissioner John Barbieri said he had great respect for Caulton and he acknowledged accusations that political influence once played a part the promotion process.

"What I will warn you is that it is a Pandora's box," said Barbieri. " What you do for one , you should probably do for all, and there will be numerous people throughout the ages who have been bypassed. It is not possible for the police department to go back and research every promotion."

Barbieri told Hurst he would research Caulton’s case and keep an open mind.

"A lot of your concerns are valid," said Barbieri, but added " Civil Service does not recognize diversity as a promotional advantage."

A spokesman for the police department said later that records show Caulton had the third-highest score on the Civil Service exam for captain and the promotions were given to the two people with higher scores.

One of them, Paula Meara, would later become the first woman to serve as Springfield’s chief-of-police.

Caulton’s daughter Helen Caulton-Harris is the city of Springfield’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services.  Earlier this year, in an essay in the news magazine African-American Point of View she wrote about her father’s disappointment at not achieving the rank of captain and the belief he had been unjustly passed over.

After the article appeared, a petition drive launched calling for a posthumous promotion for Caulton and naming a new police headquarters building planned in Springfield in his honor.          

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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