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Editorial: An Imperfect, but Necessary Step toward Trust…

Changing more than the guard. (WMassP&I)

Changing more than the guard. (WMassP&I)

The operation of the Springfield Police Department is perhaps the civil rights issue of the moment in the City of Homes. The reporting on the actions of Detective Gregg Bigda had already shaken City Hall, the Hampden County Hall of Justice and Pearl Street, the police department’s headquarters. Now that The Republican has obtained the video itself, the situation has become fodder for national outlets.

Something has got to give. A shakeup is needed to restore the community’s trust in the department. We are unsure about the Springfield City Council’s plan to reestablish a police commission, but the status quo has become untenable. The Council should pass its proposed changes and, if necessary, override Mayor Domenic Sarno veto.

This mess began after Bigda was recorded allegedly threatening to assault and plant evidence against juvenile suspects following their arrest for stealing an unmarked police car. Bigda received a 60-day suspension, although his credibility as a prosecution witness has already felled a number of narcotics prosecutions. State and federal investigations are underway. Police Commissioner John Barbieri said terminating Bigda would not survive a civil service appeal.

Councilors and community groups say this situation proves the disciplinary process—hearings before a mayor-appointed board with final decisions resting with Barbieri—is flawed and not credible.

The mayor has argued that the current system, in which a uniformed commissioner outside civil service is appointed to organize and manage the department, insulates Pearl Street from politics. The system was erected by the Control Board about a decade ago.

To rule absolutely or to rule not at all? (WMassP&I)

To rule absolutely or to rule not at all? (WMassP&I)

Certainly the politics of this system differs from the Police Commission of old, but it is very much political. What Sarno does not say, however, is that as the appointing authority he can exert tremendous influence on the department. As Sarno may be aware, he is a politician.

The sheer nudity of Sarno’s well-documented consolidation of power in Springfield belies his suggestion the current system depoliticizes Pearl Street.

The proposed ordinance would essentially resurrect the old Commission. Members would be appointed by the mayor and would make hiring, discipline, policy and organizational decisions. Day to day operations would fall to a police chief under civil service.

However, this blog supports this proposal only reluctantly. The old Police Commission was riven by politics, too, and we wonder whether a complex organization like the police can be governed by committee properly.

If the Council stops here, this may end up being no more than a stunt. (WMassP&I)

If the Council stops here, this may end up being no more than a stunt. (WMassP&I)

Rather the Police Commission ordinance must pass to establish a beachhead for broader reform. No Commission will come into being—in any meaningful way—until 2019 when Barbieri’s current contract expires. While our reporting has suggested Barbieri would be open to a renegotiation earlier, Sarno most certainly will not.

Yet, with the proposed ordinance entered into law, the mayor cannot negotiate another contract with Barbieri or some other commissioner any further into the future.

But that time will allow the entire city time to breath and better the ordinance. Aside from mayoral megalomania, the competing goals of responsiveness to complaints, honest oversight, labor fairness for rank and file and, above all, trust can be reconciled.

We are partial to Cambridge’s system which retains a Commissioner figure like Barbieri now, but has reviewing body before which all major decisions must be justified. However, one thing Cambridge has that Springfield does not have is money to properly staff this commission. Sarno’s current police complaint board is only staffed by City Solicitor Ed Pikula and the mayor’s chief of staff Denise Jordan.

Another area the Council’s current commission proposal does not do is establish substantive qualifications. The Council would do well to consider whether people of different backgrounds or certain groups from the community or labor should be represented.

This is a critical issue. In an age of Trump when tensions are high and communities of color feel particularly vulnerable, they must have trust in the police department. Likewise, rank and file police—who have historically also supported the commission’s return—must have faith that the brass deals with them fairly.

While Springfield’s dangerousness and crime problems are real, their impact on the city is as much a function of perception. How Pearl Street is perceived by residents, suburbanites and visitors is crucial to how the city as a whole is perceived within and without.

But how responsive Springfield’s government is to a problem like this also matters. City Hall’s credibility, specifically that of the Council’s, is also on the line. The way forward is to pass this ordinance and improve upon it from there.