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Massachusetts' highest court rules Springfield City Council can put civilian board in charge of police department

Springfield Police Department Headquarters on Pearl Street
Paul Tuthill
New management may soon be coming to the Springfield Police Department, as the highest court in Massachusetts clears the way for appointment of a civilian police commission.

SJC sides with Council in dispute with Mayor Sarno

The highest court in Massachusetts has issued a decision in a long-running dispute between the legislative and executive branches in Springfield over management of the police department.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that Mayor Domenic Sarno is obligated to appoint a five-person civilian commission to run the Springfield Police Department rather than the single police commissioner hired by the mayor.

The unanimous decision, which affirms a ruling from a Hampden Superior Court Judge almost a year ago, is a huge victory for the City Council.

In 2016 and again in 2018, the Council voted to create a five-member Board of Police Commissioners with the authority to set policies for the police department as well as hire, fire, and discipline police personnel. A police chief would be in charge of day-to-day operations.

But Sarno ignored the ordinances and refused to appoint commissioners. The Council sued the mayor in 2020.

“It was a fight we had to take to the mayor and one that I am glad resulted in this way,” said City Council President Marcus Williams, who added he is “elated” by the ruling from the SJC.

“I think it is a good day for the city of Springfield,” he said “I think it is a good day in determining what the Council’s legislative authority is.”

In a written statement, Sarno said he “respects the decision of the SJC,” but declined to comment further saying he needed time for his legal team to thoroughly review the ruling.

Sarno had claimed the Council’s creation of a civilian police commission usurped the authority given the mayor in the city charter. The SJC rejected that argument and said the Council has the right under state law and city ordinances to reorganize the police department.

The decision noted that since the early 1900’s Springfield’s police department was overseen by a civilian commission. It was replaced in 2004 when a state-appointed finance control board voted to put a single police commissioner in charge of the department.

After the Council vote in 2018 to revive the police commission, Sarno said it was a step backwards.

“Let the professionals run the department,” he said at the time. “Let’s not play politics with the situation."

City Councilor Jesse Lederman, who sponsored the order to sue the mayor, said the SJC decision will lead to greater accountability by the Springfield Police Department.

“The establishment of a Board of Police Commissioners is not about any one person, it is about creating a fair and transparent system, a system of accountability, professionalism, and most importantly checks and balances that the public and members of the department are able to trust and rely on. That has been our goal from the beginning,” Lederman said.

The transition to a police commission from a single police commissioner is occurring at a time when other big changes will be coming to the Springfield Police Department.

After lengthy negotiations, there is a tentative agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice to undertake a series of police reforms. In 2020, the DOJ issued a scathing report that said members of the former narcotics unit had routinely used excessive force that violated people’s civil rights.

Changes will also be required to bring department policies and procedures into line with a police reform law enacted by Massachusetts in 2020.

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.