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Civilian board's first high-profile police discipline case draws criticism

Paul Tuthill
The Springfield Board of Police Commissioners at their inaugural meeting on March 11, 2022. Clockwise from left are: Robert C. Jackson, Gary Berte, city attorney Talia Gee, Madeline Fernandez, Albert Tranghese, and Norman Roldan

Two Springfield cops convicted in off-duty assault are reinstated by Board of Police Commissioners

Criticism has followed a vote by a civilian board to reinstate two Springfield, Massachusetts police officers who were convicted of criminal charges in a notorious off-duty brawl.

By a 2-1 vote, the Board of Police Commissioners directed that Daniel Billingsley and Christian Cicero – both convicted of misdemeanor assault in the Nathan Bill’s bar fight – be returned to duty as officers in the Springfield Police Department following their suspensions of nearly four years.

The decision was denounced by both Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Council President Jesse Lederman.

In a statement, Sarno said he was “dismayed” by the board acting without its full complement of five members to reinstate the officers, a move he said “erodes” the work being done to build back community trust in the Springfield Police Department. All of the commissioners were appointed by Sarno.

Lederman said it’s “deeply disturbing” the decision was made with two of the commissioners absent.

“There needs to be clear policies and procedures set (and) this board needs robust administrative and legal support from the (Sarno) administration in order to carry out its mission,” he said.

After a years-long standoff, the City Council won a court fight in February to force Sarno to appoint the civilian commissioners in hopes of restoring public trust in police oversight.

“We are heading in the direction of what the Council has long advocated,” Lederman said, adding the board needs to act in “a transparent way.”

For months now, Councilors have voiced concerns about the functioning of the new board.

Councilor Zaida Govan said the commissioners have no budget and no staff and so they are dependent on the police department’s Internal Investigations Unit for administrative support.

“So, I am very-very concerned with these issues that I’m hearing,” she said.

The ordinance that created the board said it will have total authority over police personnel including hiring and promotions. City Councilor Victor Davila, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he was disappointed that the five commissioners had agreed to limit their jurisdiction solely to disciplinary matters.

“I am concerned the intent of the law is not being followed, it’s being circumvented,” Davila said.

The alleged assault in 2015 on four Black men by a group of off-duty Springfield cops that followed a verbal argument in Nathan Bill’s has hung like a dark cloud over the police department.

A statewide grand jury in 2019 indicted more than a dozen current and former Springfield police officers – some were charged with the actual assaults and others with attempting to cover it up. But most of the defendants have been acquitted or had the charges dropped.

Billingsley and Cicero were convicted last March. They were sentenced to suspended jail terms.

Unless they win reversals on appeal, neither is entitled to back pay, according to City Solicitor John Payne.

The city paid out $800,000 to the four assault victims to settle a civil rights lawsuit.

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.