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Springfield city councilors balk at 'blank check' for police misconduct cases

Springfield City Hall at night
Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
The Springfield City Council, meeting virtually, debated for over an hour a request for a lump sum to settle a backlog of police misconduct lawsuits and then opted to continue the discussion at a later meeting.

City lawyers seek $5 million to offer settlements

City Councilors in Springfield, Massachusetts are weighing whether to set aside a lump sum of $5 million to settle a backlog of police misconduct cases.

In an unusual request, the city’s Law Department wants a pool of money at its disposal in hopes it can persuade people who have filed lawsuits alleging misconduct by members of the Springfield Police Department to settle the cases, thus avoiding trials and jury verdicts that could potentially cost city taxpayers millions of dollars more.

“The $5 million would be a fraction or smaller portion of what we feel would be our potential exposure for these many cases that are pending,” said City Solicitor Ed Pikula.

He told Councilors during a meeting this week that the $5 million might settle about a dozen pending cases.

“It’s a chance to put some of these major cases behind us,” Pikula said. “It’s a chance to put our best foot forward to turn the page on some of the past misconduct that has been at issue.”

After more than an hour of debate, the Council tabled the request. Councilors said they wanted more information from the city’s lawyers, possibly in an executive session closed to the public, before voting.

Councilor Tim Allen called the Law Department’s request “unorthodox.”

“We have a role on the Council of fiscal oversight for the city and we don’t usually do that by giving people a pot of money without knowing how (it is going to get spent),”

Councilor Justin Hurst said settlements should be approved by the Council on a case-by-case basis, which has been the long-standing practice.

“Because I can’t go back and continue to explain to my constituents how I just gave the city of Springfield a blank check of $5 million to go and settle cases that we don’t even know about,” Hurst said.

Over the last decade, Springfield has paid out tens of millions of dollars to victims of police misconduct. Just since 2016, the city has spent more than $9 million on settlements.

The $5 million is “a hard, hard ask,” said City Councilor Trayce Whitfield, citing other needs the city has to reduce gun violence, housing insecurity. and drug addiction.

City Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he is continuously disappointed that issues of police misconduct come up again and again while the city administration denies there are systemic problems with the police department.

“The building is burning, we know it, but they are denying there is a fire,” Ramos said.

The city is negotiating with the U.S. Justice Department for a binding agreement on reforming the Springfield Police Department. The talks began after a Justice Department report in June 2020 said members of the Narcotics Bureau had routinely used excessive force and violated people’s civil rights.

Pikula said once the reforms are put in place, the city’s liability for police misconduct will be greatly reduced.

“We should have a lot less of these cases in the future,” he said.

Pikula said the agreement with the Justice Department should be arrived at in a matter of “weeks not months.”

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.