City Councilors calling for return to civilian police commission

Would mark the return to a system replaced a decade ago

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Ten members of the Springfield City Council are calling for a change in the way that the city’s police department is run. Wednesday afternoon, the council members announced a plan to eliminate the office of police commissioner; replacing it with a civilian police commission and a civil service chief.

The City of Springfield used to have such a system until more than a decade ago, until the commissioner’s office was created by the Finance Control Board, which was in place at the time.

Some of the councilors speaking at Wednesday’s news conference have been critical of Commissioner John Barbieri’s handling of alleged misconduct in the department. Barbieri says that he is following proper procedures, but cannot comment much on specific cases while they are still being investigated.

Council President Mike Fenton, however, said that the proposal is not a vote of “no confidence” in Barbieri or in the police department as a whole, but that this is about creating a better system for public safety in the city.

The commission- appointed by the mayor- would be in charge of hiring, promotions, and disciplinary matters, while the chief would run day-to-day operations for the department. Under the councilors’ proposal, the change would not take effect until 2019, when Barbieri’s present contract with the city runs out.

Fenton said that he hopes Mayor Domenic Sarno will agree to the proposed change, but noted that they do have enough votes to override a veto by the mayor, if he chooses to do so.

Sarno told 22News that he will comment on the issue as soon as he has a chance to review the ordinance proposal.

Sarno said in a statement:

“The call to bring back the old Police Commission sends a bad message of ‘politics and patronage’ and also looks to usurp the Mayor’s authority under the Plan A Strong Mayor form of government. We need to let the professionals do their jobs. The reality is that running a modern-day urban police department is very complex and complicated. The old system is antiquated and was abandoned by the Financial Control Board in their efforts to modernize and professionalize the Police Department. In order to implement this change, an independent civilian oversight entity has been created based on the advice of experts in the field of criminal justice (Buracker Report of 2005) and has evolved over time to the Community Police Hearing Board to work in conjunction with a Police Commissioner, who has the background, education and authority to manage a $40 million urban police department with some 500 sworn members. The Buracker Report also indicated a chief/commissioner of police in any city should be accountable to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a city government. The CEO in cities varies by type of government, but in the City of Springfield, the Mayor is the CEO. If the Mayor is to be held accountable by the citizenry, then the Mayor should have the authority to hold all department heads accountable. The Mayor should also have the authority to select a Commissioner of Police. If voters don’t like the Mayor’s actions, then there is an electoral process to affect change.”

Joining the 10 councilors Wednesday afternoon was State Rep. Jose Tosado (D-Springfield) and Urban League of Springfield President Henry Thomas. Tosado had been vice president of the city’s former police commission, and said that the system was not perfect, but it was better than the system they currently have.

Councilors Justin Hurst, Bud L. Williams, Kateri Walsh, Adam Gomez, Michael Fenton, Melvin Edwards, Marcus Williams, Timothy Allen, and Orlando Ramos were present for Wednesday’s news conference. Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was not there Wednesday, but is also supporting the effort.

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