Browse By

Briefings: Clapprood Renders Justice of Her Own in Nathan Bill’s Case…

Could Clapprood’s Justice be a Blessing for a few and a curse for a city? (created via WAMC and Google search images)

In a controversial move during a global health pandemic, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood announced the reinstatement of five still-charged police officers tied the Nathan Bill’s case. The relevant officers were not the alleged off-duty perpetrators of an assault outside the East Forest Park watering hole. Rather, they were among those accused of covering up the crime.

Clapprood, with Mayor Domenic Sarno’s blessing, justified the move in a statement on the grounds that the department faced shortages of officers. City councilors have panned the move, questioning the message it sends. Others have noted that Clapprood had previously said the department’s staffing was adequate.

The Commissioner’s decision came in a prepared release issued Wednesday.

Last year, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey indicted the officers accused of committing the assault. However, she also filed charges against several officers who responded to the incident, alleging perjury and other deliberate misstatements.

In her statement, Clapprood noted that the trial may be continued until next year. She did not reinstate the officers accused of the actual assault. A sixth officer, Melissa Rodriguez, can return to work after the AG dismissed perjury charges against her Friday.

The Attorney General’s office declined to comment, citing the pending nature of the case.

In a statement, City Council President Justin Hurst blasted the decision as the “wrong message to residents who need to trust our government and police officers now more than ever.”

“The system is broken when our Mayor sanctions decisions by the Commissioner…that undermine our justice system,” Hurst continued.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & files)

Sarno defended the move in a characteristic quote in Clapprood’s release.

“Again, we’re in unprecedented times with ‘all hands on deck’ [sic] needed to continue to keep all our residents and business community safe and sound.”

Late last month, amid lockdowns to battle the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, Clapprood said the disease had hit or quarantined some Springfield officers. Departments nationwide have seen cops sidelined either by COVID-19 infections or self-isolation following exposure to others with the disease. In New York, thus far the American city hardest hit by COVID-19, over a thousand officers have been out on leave pending recovery or quarantine.

In addition to illnesses, Clapprood ascribed the need for the reinstatements to pending retirements and that an academy does not graduate until May. She said the officers were “in need of work,” having been suspended without pay for a year.

A Pearl Street spokesperson said Springfield has 460 sworn officers. The department did not state how many were healthy and available for duty, explaining it fluctuates day to day.

As Hurst noted in his statement, Clapprood had requested a deployment of 75 National Guard members, under her command, to augment the city’s depleted ranks.

Ostensibly that deployment, announced on March 27, never happened. The state did send a contingent of State Police Troopers to assist Springfield Police.

While Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has activated the Guard, their role has been almost exclusively for relief purposes. Indeed, in Springfield, they are assisting with the testing tent the city erected to serve the city’s homeless population.

Relief? Sure. Civilian policing? Uhhhhh… (via Twitter/@TheNationsFirst)

With crime plummeting to historic lows amid the outbreak and no signs of civil unrest, the Guard deployment for purely policing purposes might have been unprecedented. By comparison, the Staties have helped out Springfield’s Finest on numerous occasions over the last 20 years.

Neither Baker’s office nor the Massachusetts National Guard returned requests for comment made in recent weeks.

The role the reinstated officers will have is not clear, but it could create problems in the long run. The Reminder’s Mike Dobbs, speaking on NEPR’s The Short List, reported that Springfield Police thus far planned “no restrictions” about how to use the officers.

That could present legal issues, especially if they must be witnesses in any criminal proceedings. While Clapprood’s statement described Sarno as supportive, it only observed that City Solicitor Ed Pikula, HR/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney and another attorney “reviewed” the decision.

Charges against some Nathan Bill’s defendants have been dropped before, as with Officer Ridriguez While not an exoneration, that does not present the same issues as returning them to the force while still facing charges of covering up another crime.