Debate Continues In Springfield Over Civilian Police Oversight | WAMC

Debate Continues In Springfield Over Civilian Police Oversight

Jun 25, 2019

A proposal to add "teeth" to the civilian board that investigates complaints about police officers in Springfield, Massachusetts is being debate in a City Council committee.
Credit WAMC

   A proposal to enhance civilian oversight of the troubled police department in Springfield, Massachusetts has been endorsed by the head of a national organization that advocates for police accountability. 

  A proposal being debated by the Springfield City Council that would expand the size of the city’s Community Police Hearing Board from the current seven members to nine, and give it subpoena power to investigate complaints about police misconduct, earned praise from the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

"A lot of the elements you have in here helps the police department to have that pressure from another part of government to do things in a way that really works for a community," said Brian Corr, who is also Executive Secretary for the Police Review & Advisory Board in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

   Corr spoke at a meeting of the Springfield City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

  He said civilian oversight of local police departments is not common across the country. In Massachusetts only four cities (Boston, Cambridge, Springfield and Pittsfield) have civilian boards that review complaints about police officer conduct.  None of the civilian panels have the authority to order disciplinary action.

"We are often thinking about back end accountabilty, so when something has gone wrong how do we find out what happened, and what happens in terms of discipline.  But. to actually do work around the front end to change policies and proceedures ..that is ultimately what civilian oversight aims to do is change the conditions that lead to complaints and misconduct and not just deal with it after it happens," said Corr.

Springfield has had a civilian police review panel in one form or another for over a decade.  But critics have long argued the civilian board lacks “teeth.”

Frustrated by large monetary settlements for police misconduct and headline-grabbing cases of alleged criminal wrong-doing by Springfield cops, the City Council has voted twice since 2016 to put a civilian board of commissioners in charge of the police department.

Mayor Domenic Sarno has ignored the council’s wishes insisting their plan is illegal.  A single police commissioner, appointed by the mayor, continues to run the department.  Deputy Chief Cheryl Clapprood took over as acting commissioner when John Barbieri abruptly retired last February.  She has taken steps to reform the department.

To break the gridlock between the mayor and council, the proposed ordinance to strengthen civilian review of the police was introduced by City Councilors Mike Fenton and Tim Ryan last April.  City Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, has proposed several amendments.

   The committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a Ramos-sponsored amendment to require a “national search” for a new police commissioner in the event of a vacancy.

    "The main reason I proposed this is to avoid the position of police commissioner being exclusively for members of the Springfield Police Department," said Ramos.

    More hearings will be scheduled by the Public Safety committee, according to Ramos, with the goal to return the amended ordinance to the full City Council for a first-step vote at the regularly scheduled meeting on July 15.