One thing that has not shut down during the pandemic is crime in the largest city in western Massachusetts.
During the first couple of weeks under the stay-at-home advisory and the closure of non-essential businesses that began in Massachusetts on March 24th, the volume of 911 calls to the police in Springfield fell. But lately that has changed, according to Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood.
"Yes, the crime rate has started to tick up, but we are ready for it and we will deal with it," said Clapprood.
The city’s top cop sees several factors behind the increase in crime: the courts are closed, people are getting antsy, the weather is getting warmer, and there is more violence behind closed doors.
"The spike I thought I would see in domestic violence we did not see right away, we certainly are seeing it now," said Clapprood. On Friday police served 40 restraining orders - twice the typical number, according to Clapprood.
Clapprood said the illegal drug trade remains lucrative. Last Friday, a large number of people – as many as 30 by some accounts – were together in the backyard of a home on College Street. Shots rang out. People fleeing in cars shot at each other. A 22-year old man was killed. Four people were wounded. Police found drugs and cash in one of the cars.
"The people who don't care about life and death certainly don't care about social distancing," said Clapprood. "Our efforts are focused to end this crime problem to make people feel safe again."
The highly contagious virus has not decimated the ranks of the Springfield police the way Clapprood initially feared it might. As of Monday, 10 officers were out with the illness. Eleven, who had COVID-19 recovered and returned to work.
From the start, the department took steps to try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading through the ranks. Squads were dispersed to four separate locations. Officers no longer patrolled in pairs. Enough N95 respirator masks were secured to outfit each of the city’s 500 cops, police buildings and vehicles were frequently cleaned and disinfected.
To provide backup, the Massachusetts State Police increased patrols in Springfield. The National Guard was enlisted to provide security at a tent compound set up to care for the homeless, relieving Springfield police of that responsibility.
Still, citing short staffing due to illness and retirements, Clapprood made the unusual decision to reinstate five police officers who are facing criminal charges. The five had been suspended for more than a year after they were indicted for allegedly covering up the involvement of other officers in an off-duty brawl outside a bar in 2015.
The five are scheduled to return to duty Wednesday, according to Clapprood.
"I belive it will work out well for the department," Clapprood said Monday in explaining her decision to reinstate the officers.
Mayor Domenic Sarno supported the move. But Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst is highly critical of the commissioner’s decision to put the five cops back on the job while they face unresolved criminal charges.
" I am confused and flabbergasted," said Hurst.
Hurst said the city could be subjected to lawsuits, and cases could be thrown out, if the five officers are ultimately convicted.