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Public Safety Committee chair says subpoenas 'not off the table' if Springfield police commissioners keep skipping meetings with City Councilors

Facebook: Springfield Police Department
Springfield City Councilor Victor Davila, chair of the Public Safety Committee

Lots of questions, few answers for Councilors about new civilian police board

Efforts by the Springfield City Council to oversee the startup of the civilian Board of Police Commissioners wound up in frustration today.

None of the five members of the Board of Police Commissioners showed up for the scheduled meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that was held using remote technology, Tuesday, prompting some discussion about the Council exercising its almost never used subpoena power.

“It would be pretty sad to have to do that, but it is not completely off the table at this point,” said City Councilor Victor Davila, chair of the Public Safety Committee.

“I am a patient man, but my patience just ran out,” he said.

Davila said two of the three commissioners had notified him they would be unable to attend the meeting, but he said he heard nothing from the others.

“I find that extremely disrespectful,” he said.

It is not the first time the police commissioners either declined, or did not respond to, an invitation from the City Council. The full Council held a meeting last October to see how the board was progressing in its role as an independent overseer of the Springfield Police Department, and no commissioners attended that meeting either.

“This is officially a problem,” Davila said.

The board members are not city employees. They are, in essence, volunteers who serve without pay. Mayor Domenic Sarno appoints the commissioners.

After a years-long legal battle between the Council and Sarno that went all the way to the state’s highest court, it was ruled last February that the Council’s ordinance creating the Board of Police Commissioners was valid.

Sarno appointed the board members and assigned them the responsibility to discipline police officers accused of misconduct.

The full five-member commission met for the first time last April. A month later, during a meeting with City Councilors that some commissioners did attend, they complained about a lack of administrative support from the city.

The consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city that requires a host of police reforms calls for a written manual that spells out the policies and procedures the police commissioners are to follow.

City Solicitor John Payne, who is working with the commissioners to write the manual, was unable to attend the Public Safety Committee meeting due to illness, according to an attorney for the city, who stood in for him.

City Councilor Trayce Whitfield said it remains unclear what the working relationship is between the board and the police department’s internal investigations unit. She suggested the Council make a public records request to try to find out how officer misconduct cases are referred to the board.

“I want to know what came in, what got dismissed, and what moved on to the Board of (Police) Commissioners,” Whitfield said.

In November, the board held disciplinary hearings with two of its members absent and voted 2-1 to reinstate two police officers who were convicted of misdemeanor assault in the notorious Nathan Bill’s bar fight.

The commissioners’ actions drew criticism and prompted questions about the rules the board is operating under.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.