Springfield City Council OKs Suit Over Police Commission Dispute
A years-long standoff between the executive and legislative branches of government in the largest city in western Massachusetts is heading to court.
The Springfield City Council during a brief meeting held remotely Tuesday evening voted 11-1 to greenlight litigation over the creation of a civilian board of police commissioners that would set policy and have the authority to hire, fire, and discipline personnel at the Springfield Police Department.
In 2016 and again in 2018, the City Council approved ordinances to establish a board of police commissioners. Both times the Council voted to override Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto.
The mayor, insisting the ordinance runs afoul of the city charter, has refused to appoint the board. Sarno’s position is supported by City Solicitor Ed Pikula.
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, City Council President Justin Hurst said it is time to settle the argument.
"I think this is a legal question we have to get answered," said Hurst. " I think the citizens of Springfield want to see it answered."
The City Council in June voted to retain the pro-bono legal counsel of attorneys Thomas Lesser and Michael Aleo. Councilors held several private meetings with the lawyers to discuss strategy before Tuesday’s vote to authorize a lawsuit, according to Hurst.
"I was extremely proud of my colleagues and their support in taking this next step," said Hurst. "It will be in the hands of a judge shortly and we'll see what the verdict is."
Michael Angelini, an attorney who is representing Mayor Sarno in the dispute, said in a statement that if a suit is filed in court by the City Council he is confident it will fail.
The possible litigation comes at a time when the Springfield Police Department is under pressure to make reforms following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that found members of the narcotics division had routinely used excessive force.
"I think that the system we have right now is not working," said Hurst. "So, if something is not working then we need to change it, which is what I believe was the origional intent of the City Council."
Sarno and Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood held a press conference two weeks ago to highlight changes they said had been made so far. Sarno urged the City Council to act on his proposal to give subpoena power to the nine-member Community Police Hearing Board to improve its ability to investigate complaints about police.
"So, I am hopeful the council and I can work together," said Sarno. "Having subpoena powers for this Community Police Hearing Board is very very key."
City Councilor Sean Curran was the only vote against authorizing litigation.
" We did have a police commission in the 1970s and 1980s and for a lot of reasons it just didn't work," said Curran. "The strong commissioner model is still the best way to assure we have a (police) department that keeps our city safe while at the same time remaining accoutable to the residents of Springfield."
Critics of the former civilian police commission said it was overly politicized.
City Councilor Kateri Walsh was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.