A virtual roundtable was held Monday evening on policing and race in the largest city in western Massachusetts. Some invited participants boycotted the discussion.
The forum, held by teleconference, was hosted by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who said it was part of a process to routinely review and update policing policies and practices.
" I am here to listen and to learn," said Sarno.
There were more questions than suggestions from the roughly 50 people who participated in the forum that was streamed live on the city’s Facebook Page.
People asked if Springfield police are trained to deescalate potentially violent situations? What about cultural sensitivity education? Will police intervene if they see other cops doing wrong?
Several participants urged more civilian oversight of the police – not just a review board, as the city has now, but a panel with subpoena and real disciplinary powers.
Freddy Lopez, a community activist, called for an audit of arrest records to look for possible racial profiling.
" I would like to see all the arrests based on race by officer," said Lopez.
Another community activist, Yolanda Cancel, who ran for mayor in 2019, questioned the role of school resource officers.
" What are we going to do about police accountability in our school department?" asked Cancel.
Henry Thomas, president of the Springfield chapter of the Urban League, said a tipping point had been reached because of the recent killings of Black men by police officers around the country.
"We can reform all we want, but if we don't transform it is an effort in futility," said Thomas. He said the police department had to be more equitable, comprehensive, and contemporary.
Hours before the forum, Sarno said he had already come up with some ideas he planned to announce this week.
Skipping the mayor’s roundtable event was Springfield NAACP president Talbert Swan. He was upset because Sarno cancelled a commitment to attend a June 4th meeting on police accountability put on by the NAACP and the Pioneer Valley Project.
"What he has done is plan a forum where he can control the narrative," said Swan. "He can give he pretense he has a level of concern without any substance to it."
Swan said he has met several times with Sarno and made recommendations including reconstituting the city’s Human Rights Commission, creating a civilian review board “with teeth,” and requiring an independent investigation whenever there is a high profile allegation of police misconduct.
"These are some simple recommendations that Mayor Sarno has summarily dismissed," said Swan.
Four Springfield City Councilors – Malo Brown, Victor Davila, Adam Gomez, and Council President Justin Hurst – also snubbed the mayor’s forum. Hurst said the council should have been part of the planning for the roundtable.
Hurst pointed to Boston, where Mayor Marty Walsh last week declared racism a public health emergency and said he would take money from police overtime and reallocate it to social services.
The City Council has a special meeting scheduled Tuesday evening to consider retaining pro bono legal counsel in the standoff with Sarno over the appointment of a board of police commissioners.
The council approved the board over Sarno’s veto. The mayor has refused to appoint members to the board.