How Springfield is keeping public safe as new economic engines move in

If the City wants to encourage visitors to walk the corridor, they must make sure it's safe.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – In a special edition of 22News InFocus, host Kait Walsh gives us an in-depth look at why people are saying Springfield is experiencing a “renaissance.” In part 2 of this series, she shows us how the city is ensuring public safety.

“We’re starting to see a small increase in activity in the opposite side of the tracks on the Main Street corridor so we’re focusing a lot of attention there and I think we’ve made significant progress obviously when you see a 22 percent decrease in the crime rate from last year to this year and 13 percent citywide, I think that would be a sterling example what we’re doing here is working,” said Springfield Police Sergeant Julio Toledo.

He was speaking at the Springfield North End C3 Policing weekly meeting. Every Thursday, it’s held at Edgewater Apartments off Plainfield Street, or at Sacred Heart Church. C3 means “Counter Criminal Continuum”. It all began eight years ago when members of the North End community met monthly with police. Commissioner John Barbieri was a deputy chief at the time. “Attendance was very sparse. Jose Claudio from the New North Citizens Council, some of the local and state representatives, some of the people from city government, usually the property managers and only one or two tenants. We were having a real hard time of getting people to come to the meetings. And then unfortunately we had a spate of really serious violence in the North End, Commissioner Barbieri told 22News.

There were several homicides, including one involving assault rifles. Barbieri said, “We responded in kind to the neighborhood with 10-man police patrols which I personally led because I was deputy chief, carrying our own assault rifles, and we made arrests and we started to work on the problem, but that’s traditional policing. Traditional policing is you saturate an area, heavy enforcement, you make as many arrests as possible, but I knew that the long term solution was going to have to be something different because we really couldn’t afford to be down there in those kinds of numbers.”

That’s when State Police Trooper Michael Cutone had an idea. He said, “Just coming back from a deployment from Iraq in ’06, myself and another trooper from our experiences with the Army Special Forces and what we’ve done in the town of Avghani where we utilized the local police to fight counterinsurgency, we took those principles of community building and we just took them back home.”

It might seem extreme: Military special forces tactics used in a war zone, to be used on a city, but it’s worked.

“Look around this table, I’m the only one from the 70s and the 80s here, and I tell you, it has improved…We don’t order the cops around, they don’t order us around. We sit down and have ideas,” said one member of the community.

C3 policing meetings started back in 2009 in the North End, but they’ve since been enacted in other communities including the South End, Forest Park and Mason Square.

“C3 is designed to roll out to the neighborhoods that are most impoverished and have the greatest needs for services and when we selected the areas after the North End, we were pretty strict with the guidelines. It wasn’t where we just thought we should go, we did research. It was about crime statistics of course, but it was also about truancy, poverty, hospital usage rates. We had our crime analysis deep dive and what we discovered is as you can probably imagine, it wasn’t counter-intuitive. Most of those spots just layered on top of each other,” Barbieri said.

Here’s how a meeting works:

The police officer assigned to that neighborhood starts with a list of the crimes and people arrested in the past week. Anyone is welcome to attend, and each has a chance to share an update or concern with the group. There are some 80 local organizations involved…as well as presidents of tenants associations who relay the message of the meeting back to the tenants. On this particular day, that included an announcement from Pride that they would be donating $2,000 in a scholarship for a kid in the neighborhood. We heard from Friends of the Homeless, local schools, residents, parents, and even a representative from the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club.

“I’ll be honest. Over 60 percent of our participants are not from Springfield and some of them are from pretty upscale communities. With the support of C3, both the words and the actions, these parents, these families, these schools, no problem bringing their kids into our neighborhood to enjoy outdoor activity in the North End of Springfield. I mean who would’ve thought, right?” said Ben Quick of the PVRC.

It’s really a simple concept and it’s getting national attention. Just ask Jose Claudio of New North Citizens Council. He’s lived in the North End for a long time: “Uh…over 50 years,” Claudio said. He’s seen the community at its worst and its best. Through our experience, people are hesitant to report crimes or talk about crimes in their neighborhood out of fear of retaliation or involvement. But Claudio said they *are* helping police now more than ever in making arrests. He told 22News, “C3 model, there’s a couple steps that you have to follow, and a lot of people might not report to you, but they’ve got anonymous tips, they’ve got anonymous phone numbers that they call people, and what’s good about this is they can call police, like Sergeant Toledo here. They can call him directly, quietly, and they do all that quietly, which is also awesome.” 22News asked, “And have you found that the community is coming together more, that people are talking more?” Jose responded, “A lot more. A lot more than ever. When you build a house, and people want to come on buy and you sell it in less than 30 days, you know the neighborhood is coming back.” 22News asked, “Are those people who lived in apartments in the neighborhood and they’re moving to houses?” Jose explained, “To houses. And people coming out of other areas moving to the neighborhood.”

More proof this model is working in the community: On this day, the biggest concern wasn’t a murder or even a missing person: It was complaints of snow removal from a recent storm. Still, the City is dealing with repeat offenders back on the streets. Mayor Sarno has been very vocal in making sure they stay out of neighborhoods. He said, “We had a run which you covered, probably year, year and a half ago where we had violent, repeat offenders, bad people, gun-toting, gang-bangers, drug dealers, that for some rhyme or reason were right back on the streets in a matter of time, committing crime, even with bracelets and monitors on, committing those hideous crimes. That hurts a neighborhood when we’ve cultivated positive relationships, and they’ll say to me, hey mayor, or Sarno, or Domenic, or Commissioner Barbieri, or others, we worked with you, we helped you get this bad person off the street and they’re right back on there.” 22News asked, “So what have you done to make sure they stay in prison longer?” Mayor Sarno responded, “Well I think using the bully pulpit is important, but I didn’t want to keep yelling and screaming all the time. Chief Scott did this in Holyoke. I met with all the “legals” and said where’s the loopholes here? what’s occurring?”

He’s working with Springfield State Representative Angelo Puppolo in writing legislation for stricter bail restrictions for accused criminals. “They have the right, if they don’t like what’s been dished out to them in a district court type setting, they have the right to appeal that and kick it up to a superior court on the right of bail and restrictions of bail. And if they don’t like it there, they field have the right to kick it to a state Supreme Court justice, single one, on that. We the people have no such right, so I’m looking for an even playing field,” Mayor Sarno explained.

In addition to, and before C3 Policing, communities relied on their faith foundations to work together, create peace, and help those in need – faith foundations like St.John’s Congregational Church in the city’s Old Hill neighborhood. “We see on an average anywhere from 400 to 600 people each Sunday,” Reverend Dr. Calvin McFadden told 22News. He’s a partner with C3 policing in the neighborhood, but says his congregation alone brings hope to a part of the city that could use some. The Reverend added, “One of the things that we encourage people to do is not to leave what we have experienced in this four walls, in this place, to take that joy, to take that level of commitment of service to our community out into our society so that we can better our society. Many of our people live right in our community and even abroad in the regional area and they give back to the community and that’s their way of giving God praise and honor for their lives but also being the blessing to other people. And St. John’s has a history of doing that. We have our food pantry that’s open several days during the week providing food to needy persons in our community, provide a hot meal on Wednesdays to anyone who comes, and so we believe that ministry is not just within this sacred space, but it’s everywhere we go.” He continued, “The local civil rights movements came with the assistance of the pastors of St. John’s at that time, so I think that we continue the legacy of trying to always be present and active in any and all things that have to do with civil rights, and particularly issues that affect the black community. I think that we’re basically a strong presence in the community for that one purpose, that we also try to serve our community, but we have a lot of community servants that are members of our congregation.”

Member Denise Jordan has lived in Springfield her whole life, works for the Mayor and is a member of the congregation. She said, “One thing about Old Hill I always say this is like holy ground. There are at least 7 houses of worship in this neighborhood and so it’s not uncommon for the churches to come together for prayer vigils and walks, but there’s a church just about on every other corner in Old Hill.” That’s why when the congregation was set to build a new worship space, it wasn’t even a question for Reverend McFadden to keep it in the neighborhood. In fact, the new house of worship was built just across the street from the original. “We made a conscious decision at St. John’s rather than moving outside of the city to build this facility that we’re in, an over 300 million dollar investment to the community, we wanted to stay right here in the community because we believe that this will help perhaps brighten the hopes of folks within the community and let folks know that we’re here to serve, let folks know that we’re here to make a difference in our community,” said the Reverend.

It’s an investment in the community, both financially and in spirit, both helping to spruce up a neighborhood riddled with crime and poverty.

We can’t talk about public safety without focusing in on the Springfield Fire Department.

“Fire service is community service and our firefighters are out there and they interact with the community very well, especially our public education and fire prevention. We’ve done 200 public education presentations up to this point in the Fiscal Year, and we’ve done almost 600 inspections of different buildings, so our firefighters are up in the public on a daily basis and we very rarely have any negative feedback from that,” said Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant. He added, “Especially in Springfield, we are still a very busy department as far as fires go but we do many other things. Medical calls, we respond to about 7,000 medical calls a year for chest pain, difficulty breathing, heart attacks, those types of emergency calls. We also go to car accidents, extrications, we go to hazmat incidents, we go to water or ice rescues.”

When disaster struck in the form of the EF-03 tornado on June 1, 2011, Springfield firefighters were there as they were again at the Worthington Street gas explosion three years later on Black Friday.

Yet, Commissioner Joseph Conant said, they’re trying to do more…with less. He said, “The biggest challenge is keeping the personnel up, no matter what type of equipment you have, how good the equipment is, you still need firefighters to drag the hose into the building and to do the work of firefighting.”

With 242 firefighters, the department is at its highest number in years, but not nearly what it used to be. “We were up to 500 almost at one point, I think when I came on there were 491, so it’s been a dramatic hit over the years, but the firefighters that we have now do a tremendous job at what we do and the calls that we have to go on and getting the job done every single day,” Commissioner Conant told 22News.

Springfield fire currently has eight working engines. Which is down from 10. Each engine has two district chiefs per shift. “We have 8 fire stations, we are down from I believe 10 maybe 12 at one point. We’re down to 8 stations, they’re all fully manned, we don’t put apparatus out of service, our minimum staffing is 43 per shift, sometimes we have up to 50 depending on vacations or injuries and things like that but we don’t run under 43 personnel per shift,” Commissioner Conant said.

Despite budget cuts, Commissioner Conant is always looking for ways to best spend your limited tax money on state-of-the-art equipment. He said, “When I took over we went from a class 2 to a class 3 fire department right before I took over for insurance purposes, and we just got notified we’re going back up to a class 2 so that’s a huge endeavor. That’s through training, equipment, personnel we’ve been able to move our rating back up from a class 3 to a class 2 department. And how does that rating work? It goes into. They take in account your water system, dispatch, training, personnel, equipment and they build that all into a score and it directly affects the insurance rates of the citizens of Springfield so going from a class 3 to a class 2 is a big step for the department. So basically you’re paying less for insurance. Correct.”

They’ve added GPS systems to firetrucks so dispatch can see where each truck is in the city at any given time. They’re getting a drone to assess from above fire damage to buildings, wildfires, and assist in water rescues. Conant said Mayor Sarno has never laid off a firefighter due to budget cuts. However, the mayor did make a controversial decision not to re-sign the commissioner after his current contract ends. Not for budget cuts, but for disciplinary reasons.

“I think I, everybody knew where I stood on this issue. It was very public. Very public and that’s what had to be done. It was not done, and I had to act accordingly,” explained Mayor Sarno. Mayor Sarno announced early this year that he would not renew Commissioner Conant’s contract as punishment for Commissioner Conant not disciplining Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Guyer. Guyer violated current city ordinance by not moving to Springfield within a year of his promotion.

“It’s on the books. That’s the situation that if you’re going to become a deputy chief, you have to become a resident of Springfield. I appreciate what Commissioner Conant has done. We worked a lot side by side and Mr. Guyer had every right in the world to appeal to a higher authority and if that higher authority, whether on a state level, indicated there was not any type of issue there, then buy it. But I have to stay consistent. I have to stay consistent. This was on the books. If you’re going to become a deputy chief you have to become a resident of Springfield. As what I’ve done with the Springfield Police Department. If you don’t then that’s the issue. We always want to get the best person for the taxpayer, but I have to stay consistent,” said Mayor Sarno.

Commissioner Conant disagreed, “Well, I know the district chief’s that an issue that’s at the bargaining table and there was a court case on that so I’m not going to comment on that. I think the city ordinance needs some work, the residency ordinance, there’s some flaws in it and I think the City Council is look at it to revise and to work out, but there was no laws broken by the Springfield Fire Department.”

Commissioner Conant didn’t think the discipline was warranted. He said, “I really don’t know. We have firefighters that live in the city and we have firefighters that live outside the city and my main concern is that if they come into work and they do their job, and they come to work every day, it really doesn’t matter to me and it doesn’t matter to somebody whose house is on fire. When the firefighters show up, they don’t take a poll on where they live, and that’s something for the city officials to be concerned about. I’m just concerned about the firefighters coming to work and doing their job.”

Despite Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s efforts in leading the C3 policing, his days could be numbered as commissioner. The city council wants to eliminate the office of the police commissioner and instead have a civil police commission, following recent allegations of police misconduct within the department. Mayor Sarno is deeply opposed to this proposal. We spoke with City Councilor Kateri Walsh on the matter. “Well in the past, the interesting thing about it is that the police commission was supported by the mayor. The mayor does not support the police commission and the city council overrode the veto, so there probably is going to be a little test of that, but in the past the mayor has supported 5 commissioners and they review police policy and review promotions. That’s where most people are concerned. Are the promotions fair? Is it the person who scores the highest on the test getting the job? IT’s really an effort to eliminate any kind of favoritism.” 22News asked, “And did you see that with Commissioner Barbieri? What started this process?” Councilor Walsh said,”I think Commissioner Barbieri is doing a great job. I think there have been some very difficult issues facing the police department and individuals in the police department who have kind of given it a black eye but I think overall, he is a commissioner that I have seen out in the community, at churches, at neighborhood groups. I mean really making an effort, so I’m surprised at the backlash. He’s really been making an effort to the community.” 22News asked, “But you think in general a commission would be better than a police commissioner?” Councilor Walsh answered, “I do.”

If the office of police commissioner is eliminated, it wouldn’t occur until Commissioner Barbieri’s contract ends in 2019.

The role public safety plays in Springfield, and especially in the downtown area, will be even more intense in the coming months…with Union Station on this end opening for the first time in more than 40 years in June….and MGM Springfield opening in the fall of 2018.

If the City wants to encourage visitors to walk the corridor, they must make sure it’s safe.