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Mayor Sarno Apologizes For Reinstating Springfield Cops Accused In Racially Charged Case

Springfield Police Department Headquarters on Pearl Street
Paul Tuthill

     The mayor of the largest city in western Massachusetts has announced several steps to improve race relations.  

    In a dramatic announcement Tuesday, Mayor Domenic Sarno conceded he made a mistake by supporting the reinstatement of five Springfield police officers while criminal charges against them are still pending in connection with a 2015 assault on four Black men.

   "My apologies," said Sarno. " I met no disrespect or any ill intent to our Black community on the reinstatement of the five officers.  This was a mistake."

   Sarno said he asked Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood to re-suspend the five and she had agreed to do so.

  "I am not afraid to say when a mistake was made, and I apologize," said Sarno.

   Fearing a staff shortage if enough cops got sick with the coronavirus, Clapprood in April took the unusual step of reinstating the five officers. They had been suspended for more than year while awaiting trial for allegedly attempting to cover up the involvement of other cops in an off-duty brawl in the parking lot of Nathan Bill’s Bar and Restaurant.

         At the time, Sarno endorsed the move.  It drew sharp rebukes from leaders of the city’s minority community including City Council President Justin Hurst and Urban League president Henry Thomas.  In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Springfield chapter of the NAACP and other groups held a march to protest police brutality that started in the parking lot of Nathan Bill’s.

   The city paid out more than $800,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by the four victims in the Nathan Bill’s incident.    The settlement did not include any admission of liability by the police.

   Sarno Tuesday also called for the City Council to pass an ordinance he first proposed years ago to give subpoena power to the civilian Community Police Hearing Board.  

   "I will put it before the Council again and I am hopeful," said Sarno. " This is something that should be bipartisan."

   But Councilors have other ideas.  They’re arranging for pro bono legal representation to sue over Sarno’s refusal to act on an ordinance the City Council passed in 2018 installing a civilian Board of Police Commissioners to run the police department.

"It is a shame that a legislative body is going to sue another executive body here in the city," said Sarno.

     Sarno said he held many conversations over the last three weeks with members of his administration who are Black, including Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.

"We've asked Mayor Sarno to use his voice and leadership position to decry racism," said Caulton-Harris.  She said the mayor had some "eye-opening experiences" in the discissions with his senior Black leadership.

  As a result of reviewing health data, Sarno declared racism to be a public health crisis.

   "Across the nation we understand that racism and violence are public heath issues," said Caulton-Harris. She said the declaration will lead to the creation of policies to address racial disparities in the city of Springfield.

  Another step announced by Sarno is the creation of the Office of Racial Equity within the department of Health and Human Services.   It will work with community groups, faith leaders, and businesses to make policy recommendations.



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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