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Sudden Retirement Of Springfield's Top Cop Is Chance To Move In New Direction, Say Councilors

     The abrupt exit of the police commissioner in Springfield, Massachusetts could bring to a head a long-running political dispute over how best to manage the troubled department.

    Word of the sudden retirement of John Barbieri as Springfield Police Commissioner led to immediate calls from a majority of City Councilors for Mayor Domenic Sarno to appoint a police commission – a body twice authorized by two-thirds majority council votes that Sarno has chosen to ignore.

   Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst said the departure of Barbieri, after almost five years as commissioner, is an opportunity to change the culture of the police department.

   "There are systemic issues that are plaguing our police department," said Hurst.

  He was joined Friday at a news conference on the steps of City Hall by seven of his council colleagues.

   Councilor Kateri Walsh said the retirement creates an opportunity to go in a new direction with a police commission.

   " The city of Springfield is in a great place because there are so many capable men and women who would be willing to come forward and do this kind of service," said Walsh.

   The City Council voted in 2016 and again in 2019 to create a five-member board of police commissioners that would set policy and be responsible for personnel decisions.  A police chief would supervise the day-to-day operations.

   At Friday’s news conference, councilors also called for a nationwide search for a chief.

  Sarno maintains the council is treading on authority granted the mayor by the city charter.  He stood firm again Friday against appointing a civilian board to oversee the police department.

  " I am a firm believer in the modern-day policing which is you have an expert professional running the department -- he or she -- along with a strong resident civilian review board, which we do have," said Sarno.

  Unless Sarno capitulates, there could be a lawsuit, confirmed Council President Hurst.

" I think everything is on the table and if that means bringing a lawsuit we will certainly have a conversation about that as a body," said Hurst. " At this point in time, everything is on the table."

  Barbieri, who spent 31 years with the Springfield Police Department coming up through the ranks was hired by Sarno in 2014 to be commissioner.   He pledged reforms and to “bring the department into the 21st Century.”

   Under Barbieri’s watch, crime in the city plummeted by a reported 45 percent.

   But his tenure as commissioner was clouded by several high-profile misconduct cases.

   In 2016, narcotics detective Gregg Bigda brutally interrogated two Hispanic teenagers suspected of stealing an undercover police car.   The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating the narcotics unit for civil rights violations.

    The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office recently brought criminal charges against six Springfield police officers for an off-duty assault on four men in 2015.

    Just this week, the Hamden District Attorney announced an investigation into an incident where a man said he was grabbed around the neck by a desk officer in the lobby of police headquarters after coming in to dispute a parking ticket.

     The city has paid out millions in recent years to settle police brutality claims

    Asked if he had lost confidence in Barbieri, Sarno would only repeat that the retirement was a “mutual decision.”

    " I thank him and commend him for the many innovative programs," said Sarno.

    Barbieri did not attend Thursday’s City Hall news conference where his retirement was announced.     

     Sarno tapped Deputy Police Chief Cheryl Clapprood to be interim commissioner.

         A 39-year veteran of the Springfield Police Department, Clapprood acknowledged there are fences to mend with several community segments.

  " And I am just going to stress to th officers that I am going to demand accountability and if somebody goes rogue or does something wrong, they will be held accoutable," she said.

    Clapprood said she was committed to the crime-fighting initiatives begun under former Commissioner Barbieri and pledged to implement a body-worn camera program.






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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