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Going on Offense on Crime…

Councilor Allen (Facebook)

With its capacity to capture headlines and late night news teasers, crime remains one of the troubles for which Springfield get plenty of attention.  Although the news can make the city appear to be a river of blood set against the din of incessant gunfire, the situation is not quite that bad.  At the same time, only a fool would say that the city has a handle on crime, especially in its poorest neighborhoods.  Neither a Pollyannaish perspective nor the media’s apocalyptic image are conducive to finding a reasoned, yet broad approach to the problem.  Two city councilors have stepped forward with some fresh ideas that do not succumb to either extreme.

Tonight Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen introduces a package of reforms, ordinances and resolutions to address crime at many of its stages.  The ordinances would establish revolving funds the city could use to pay for local crime prevention, overtime, a new gun squad and other gun anti-proliferation efforts.  The resolutions, by contrast, urge action on the part of several different bodies to help curb gun violence and youth delinquency.

None of these measures would be a panacea for Springfield’s ills and Allen and Fenton do not sell them as such.  Both councilors are also careful not to criticize other efforts made to rein in crime, an allusion to closures of Worthington Street and earlier cessation of entertainment at city bars.

Still there is the sense that the city needs to be bolder, bigger than such token efforts.  If crime is consuming the city than what has been proposed up to now cannot be expected scratch the surface.  Rather many recent efforts often seem to fit in with the sense of helplessness that has tended to paralyze the city from taking any substantive measures to reduce crime.

Like many urban centers, guns are the source of the city’s worse violence.  Knife fights and beatings do not lead to the same kind of bedlam that frightens residents.  Many, if not most of the city’s homicides are gun crimes, fed by a steady flow of illegal weapons.  While Massachusetts actually has decent gun control laws, illegal weapons can easily flow into Springfield from other more weakly-controlled states like Vermont or up the Iron Pipeline from as far away as Georgia.

In a telephone interview with Western Mass Politics & Insight, Councilor Allen described the crime packaged he introduced with Councilor Fenton as a part of a broader effort to help get the city off the floor.  “It is time for Springfield to be a little stronger,” he said noting that the city often takes the role of victim on the subject of crime.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)

The ordinances proposed by Allen and Fenton would grant the city the authority to seize vehicles within which illegal guns are located.  The ordinance makes exceptions for common carriers (like buses) and for those who are clearly unaware their vehicles are used for illegal activity.

The money gleaned from those seizures would be used for a wide range of crime-fighting purposes.  Among them would be the creation of a gun squad within the police department to address the proliferation of illegal guns.  Another fund would provide for the creation of a gun tip line.  There are allegations of “community guns” in existence in the city hidden in areas where neighborhood criminals can access them for use during the commission of a crime.  The tip line would allow tipsters to confidentially reveal the location of these weapons and receive a reward, likely in the form of a gift card.

Finally, a fund would exist for community involvement in crime fighting.  Specifically, the ordinance calls upon ward councilors to convene ward-based meetings.  At those meetings, residents would develop a list of crime concerns and, using the money from the fund, allocate resources needed to fight that crime.  There is also a provision to help fund a gun court should Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastroianni opts to do so.

The gun court itself is the subject of a resolution wherein the council would call upon Mastroianni to establish such an entity.  Gun courts are venues consisting of assistant district attorneys who specialize in this area along with one or two District or Superior Court judges.  The focus on guns and inclusion of the same ADA’s and judges could expedite the process and get both the weapons and their users off the street quickly.  Similar programs have been established in Middlesex and Suffolk Counties where Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge and Lowell are located.  Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley has released a report on the positive results there.

Another resolution calls upon the License Commission to develop a certification process for bouncers, bar owners and managers so as to be sure they are able to adequately deal with troublesome patrons.  Fenton, in describing this resolve to WMassP&I in a recent interview, noted a homicide at a downtown strip club several years ago as an example of the need for better training of the employees and owners of such establishments.

A companion ordinance to that resolution would establish an entertainment advisory commission consisting of stakeholders in the city’s entertainment district and other bars citywide.  Membership would include mayoral appointees as well as various city and business leaders or their designees.  The commission would develop procedures and policies for the city and businesses to consider regarding public safety, entertainment and the retention of young professionals in the city.

Sen. Chang-Diaz (Facebook)

The final three resolutions rounding out the package include resolves supporting the reestablishment of the youth commission, the efforts of Mayor Against Illegal Guns and Senate Bill #185 before the Massachusetts Legislature.  That bill has been introduced by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston).

The Springfield Youth Commission has not been disbanded,  but Mayor Sarno has not appointed any young people to Springfield’s board.  The resolution states, “Springfield’s Youth, City Officials, Community Members and Public Safety Officials could benefit from a formal venue to discuss the challenges facing Springfield’s youth.”  In short Allen and Fenton see a reconstituted commission as a means to involve youth and give them a voice in the problems that bedeviling their generation above others.

The resolution supporting Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nationwide coalition of city mayors started by Boston Mayor Tom Menino and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg refers to a very specific initiative of the group.  Presently, massive loopholes exist that allow guns to be sold to individuals who might not be qualified to receive a gun license.  Mayors Against Illegal Guns, of which Mayor Domenic Sarno is a member, has been lobbying Congress and the resolution supports closing the loophole.

Finally, there is the bill introduced by Senator Chang-Diaz in the Massachusetts General Court.  That piece of legislation would develop strategies for school districts to keep more students in school and not drop.  Recently added language would also raise the drop-out age to 18 from 16.

As expected all but one component of the package were sent to committee to enable further discussion.  The Youth Commission resolve was passed without referral to committee.  However, Allen urged councilors, city officials and residents to view the measures as one unit.  It may be implemented in more sequential form, but its introduction as one big proposal seems critical to Allen and Fenton’s challenge to think big.

“This is not going to fix all of our problems, but this is a comprehensive approach to one of our biggest problems,” Fenton said.  Like Allen, Fenton was concerned about the Springfield’s self-victimization.  However, Fenton seemed eager to channel the city’s frustration over crime into efforts to actively correct the situation.  Fenton’s tone and volume rose as he described the rather absurd loopholes in gun control laws, but maintained that energy with a hopeful turn in describing the measure he presented with Allen.

District Attorney Mark Mastroianni (Hampden DA website)

There remain very real questions that need answering before the council can pass the ordinances.  Despite some built-in safeguards in the car seizure ordinance, there will undoubtedly be some concern over seizures when the owners do not know or cannot prove they did not know the car was used for illegal activity.  Additionally, it is unknown how much money will be collected.  The city receives some money from drug-related vehicle seizures already and, as Allen revealed at tonight’s meeting, there are some seizures for vehicles filled with multiple guns.

Another complication is whether or not the city has the legal authority to seize vehicles for reasons other than for drugs.  Allen said that he had received different opinions about the city’s legal authority in this area, but would consider a home rule petition if necessary.  When asked if he considered a general law that would apply to all municipalities if the city lacked authority on its own, Allen said he had not considered that.  However, he said such a direction is worth consideration in light of the fact that a general law could potentially enjoy the lobbying of the Massachusetts Municipal Association as opposed to a home rule petition that has only its legislators.

Early indications have been positive.  Allen and Fenton noted their colleagues gave the measures a good reception.  Allen also reported that District Attorney Mastroianni also responded positively to his and Fenton’s proposals.  With tonight’s action, the ball now goes into the court of at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, who chairs the Public Safety Committee.  Two wild cards remain, however.  The police department has not generally responded well, to change, although some sources suggest police brass may have an open mind.  Moreover it seems unlikely that the department would turn away more money in its coffers.

The other wild card is the mayor.  Sarno came to power at a time when the City Council began to transition toward a more activist posture.  When he was a member of the council, the body generally played second banana to the mayor’s office.  In recent years, to varying success, the council has assumed its fuller role as a co-equal branch of government.  The fear is that such a comprehensive approach from the council could prompt Sarno to balk for fear of feeling being diminished politically.

There is no reason to assume Sarno would try to tank the Allen-Fenton package like that, and doing so could be politically disastrous for the mayor.  Ordinances can be passed over Sarno’s veto and were the council to do so, it could bask in the political and practical glories without sharing any credit with him.

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