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Analysis: A Memorable Journey with a Debatable Last Stop…

Retired Commissioner William Fitchet on Thursday (via Facebook/City of Springfield)

To many political insiders in and around Springfield, the top cop is the second most important position in the city after the mayor. In a large (by New England standards) minority-majority city of 150,000, which, to many, has seen its revival bedeviled by both the reality and the perception of crime, such an assessment of the Police Commissioner may be an apt one. After six years, the only the second one that Springfield has known is leaving.

At a ceremony Thursday, friends, well-wishes, department heads and a significant chunk of the city’s political establishment gathered in the City Council chambers to bid William Fitchet farewell as he retires after 42 years with the Springfield Police Department. Among the noted attendees were City Councilors and Hampden County Sheriff Mike Ashe, himself planning his ride into the sunset.  Friday was Fitchet’s last day on the job. Deputy Chief John Barbieri succeeds him as Commissioner.

Fitchet got the job in 2008 after the in and out, year-plus stint of Edward Flynn as the city’s first Commissioner. The position was created the year before as a melding of the old Chief position, which was subject to civil service and the Police Commission, which was appointed by the mayor. The ordinance the Financial Control Board wrote gave organization, appointment and discipline power to the new, sole Commissioner.

In a department that can often be in the middle or on one side of the city’s epic political struggles, there could be questions about the career of any individual cop. However, a proper send off for those who weathered the department’s sometimes venomous politics seems deserved. Few police, of course, retire as the head of the Police Department in New England’s fourth largest city. Fitchet entered the department shortly after his own father left it and received promotions in 1979, 1982, 1987 and 1992. The late, elder Fitchet, who spent much of his career in the detective bureau, left the force as a sergeant in the 1960’s.

At the top though, Fitchet’s record is more mixed and considerably more debatable. In comparison to the incredibly strong urge with which the city largely, save perhaps pockets of minority communities, wanted Fitchet to become chief, there is as strong a suggestion that the accolades were as much polite as they were sincere.

Fitchet on his last day (via Facebook/SPD)

Reflecting on his departure with The Republican, Fitchet noted declines in crime on his watch, although statistics the department provided to the FBI (which only run through 2012) the result is blurry. Several categories of crime are down and others are up slightly. The decline was not smooth either, but rather a roller coaster ride. Add to that, the conspiracy minded may indulge in the belief that the stats are wrong, “juked,” if you will, using the parlance of The Wire aficionados.

Police observers have said, in the context of who the next commissioner would be (prior to Barbieri’s selection), Fitchet was polarizing as Paula Meara had been polarizing as chief. Indeed observers complained the retiring commissioner had demoted (or ended their acting position) of former deputies like William Noonan and Mark Anthony in favor of figures like Robert McFarlin and Kevin Dudley. Of course those observers are coming from a polarized direction and Fitchet and Meara had their differences as their careers as deputy chief and chief overlapped, including Fitchet joining the appeal contesting Meara’s 1996 appointment.

Some think Fitchet let the mayor have more say in police operations than the commissioner ordinance envisioned. (WMassP&I)

Some think Fitchet let the mayor have more say in police operations than the commissioner ordinance envisioned. (WMassP&I)

Likewise, there was a sense among many that Fitchet, while not seen as corrupt, let Mayor Domenic Sarno have too much of a say in key decisions, despite the apparent point of the commission being to limit political influence. Some saw that at work in appointments and also in Fitchet’s vexing support for Sarno’s push for earlier closings of bars citywide, backed by dubious stats.

Fitchet while no major contributor to politicians, did donate money to campaigns if rarely. Like many department heads in the city, he dipped at least a toe in politics while keeping up an appearance he was above and/or transcended all that.

Some of the twenty-first century’s highest profile police incidents happened on his watch too, including Melvin Jones and the Louis Jiles case. While he did ultimately fire Jeffrey Asher, the cop at the center of the Jones case, some felt at the time he acted too slowly. The city settled with both Jones and Jiles.

At the same time the Police Oversight Review Board Sarno instituted has been criticized, Fitchet has seemingly followed their advice. While no substitute for a more accountable entity, or at least one backed by ordinance rather than executive order, it suggested he wanted some community buy-in for his decisions. At the same time, Fitchet brushed aside residents’ desire for community policing, although, there again, are two sides to that as well.

Incoming Commissioner John Barbieri has been said to have wide appeal among the rank and file (via mayoral release)

Some rank and file felt he was dismissive of internal complaints and indeed he had no good answer as to how those were resolved as they are outside the review board’s purview.

It has not been all bad. Initiatives like C3, if a bit troubling as they draw parallels to counter-insurgency strategy in the Afghan mountains, have been hailed as a success. Some of the city’s highest profile crimes have been solved and, while not a police emergency solely, the city’s response to the immediate aftermath of storms of 2011 has been positively received. Indeed, police operations did not seem particularly strained by those event and civil society remained calm without looting, rioting or even a correlating uptick in crime.

While the inexpensive champagne flows and sheet cake gets consumed on Fitchet’s behalf, there is a palpable eagerness for Barbieri to take over. If the new commish has enemies, they are keeping to themselves. If nothing else, it suggests a city, a police department and a political establishment ready to move on. For his part, Barbieri, ever the gentleman, has had nothing but good things to say about his predecessor. After all, Fitchet appointed him a deputy in the first place.

For all of the above misgivings, however, it is right to consider Fitchet’s career in context. Something helped him up the latter and neither luck nor political maneuvoring appear to be culprit. He worked his way up. He was a deputy chief for sixteen years, a lengthy tenure for anybody in such a high position. Going back 25 years into newspaper archives, aside from controversies that arose when he was commissioner, Fitchet did not attract much negative media attention. That is no easy feat for upper police management in Springfield.

Moreover, he served as acting commissioner before Flynn was selected and prior to Fitchet own formal selection. Neither then-Mayor Charles Ryan nor the Control Board, which owed nothing to Springfield’s special interests, would have done that without cause.

No, in the aggregate the sendoff Fitchet received and the praise for his overall career was appropriate and, indeed, sincere in the aggregate. It was not a polite orchestration to safeguard his reputation. As one of Springfield’s Finest for 42 years, Fitchet earned his stripes, and his bars and whatever epaulets higher ranking officers get. The last few years of doubt need not cancel out everything else.