Gridlock Persists Over Plans For Civilian Oversight Of Springfield Police

May 6, 2019

Finding the Springfield Police Dept to be at a critical juncture, a police consultant recommended strengthening civil oversight by giving subpoena power to the Community Police Hearing Board.
Credit WAMC

   As the Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department struggles to rebuild its reputation and restore public trust, the mayor and City Council remain divided on civilian oversight.

    Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno wants to give the Community Police Hearing Board some “teeth” -- which critics have long claimed the civilian body lacks – by giving it the power to compel witnesses to appear and produce evidence at its hearings on allegations of misconduct by police officers.

      A month ago, Sarno proposed an ordinance that would expand the civilian police review panel from the current seven members to nine and give it subpoena power.

      "This will continue to build on the public's trust and mutual respect for our residents and police department," declared Sarno.

      The City Council, rather than give the ordinance a routine first-step approval, which would have kept the issue on subsequent council agendas, voted to send it to committee, where it could languish and die after three months.

       Sarno said he was disappointed by the decision to keep the proposal in committee.

      "I am hopeful the City Council will bring this back up ASAP and pass it," said Sarno. " It serves the residents well. It serves the police department well."

       The changes to the civilian hearing board proposed by Sarno were recommended by a consultant the city hired to review the police department’s internal affairs procedures in light of allegations of foot-dragging and cover-ups in cases of police misconduct.

        Twice since 2016, the City Council has voted to create a five-member Board of Police Commissioners – civilians who would be in charge of all personnel decisions at the police department.  But Sarno has ignored the ordinance, claiming it is illegal under the city charter.

        City Councilor Orlando Ramos said given what the council has already passed, there is no need to approve the ordinance the mayor is now pushing.

       "My arguement remains we already have a board that has subpeona power and we already have a board that addresses a lot of the concerns they are trying to address through this ordinance," said Ramos.

        Nonetheless, Ramos, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he is not shutting the door on further discussions with the administration about the civilian hearing board ordinance.

       " I don't think we are ready to take action on this ordinance as of yet," said Ramos.

        Two City Councilors, who are strong supporters of the police commission plan, Mike Fenton and Tim Ryan, support Sarno’s latest proposal for civilian police oversight.

         They say the “gridlock” between the council and the mayor is not in the best interest of the city and its troubled police department.