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Analysis: Sarno Choice to Lead Springfield’s Finest Could Turn the Page…Maybe…

Sarno Akers

A new era or more of the same… (via Springfield City Hall)

One could not chuck a rock in Springfield without hitting someone praising Mayor Domenic Sarno for choosing Lawrence Akers to be the next Police Superintendent. The incumbent super Cheryl Clapprood praised the choice. Longtime frenemy Michael Fenton, now City Council President, hailed Akers. Even frequent Sarno critics the Bishop Talbert Swan and at-large councilor Tracye Whitfield feted the move.

Barring closet cadavers, this could be one of the most widely acclaimed decisions Sarno has made in years. Not only does he name Pearl Street’s first leader of color but Akers’s record has stirred no controversies. Moreover, the transition is likely to be politically smooth, outstanding issues with the Police Commission ordinance aside. This stands in stark contrast to previous leadership turnovers Sarno has overseen, even as broad public safety questions remain.

While naming the first Black leader of the department on Martin Luther King Day is a bit on the nose, Akers is a natural successor to Clapprood. Calls for a national search usually manifest each time police successorship discussion draws near, but Springfield tends to promote everything from within. It is worth remembering in a year of potentially many transitions.

The police have been no different save onetime state public safety secretary Ed Flynn’s brief moonwalk though Pearl Street. Including Akers, the last four police leaders were all deputy chiefs. Similar patterns exist among other departments. The rare exception is the Fire Department whose leader, Commissioner B.J. Calvi, was hired out of the Agawam Fire Department after a national search.

Sarnoland would deny it, but the last two transitions were fraught. Sarno inked a contract with Clapprood amid mounting pressure to enforce the Police Commission ordinance. The mayor later used that contract’s existence to claim the ordinance was invalid. The courts laughed this off. After a final ruling on the Commission’s validity, Clapprood’s title changed from commissioner to superintendent.

Clapprood’s predecessor, John Barbieri, abruptly retired with barely any warning. Rumor has it, the process was so quick, he left City Hall in an Uber. That switchover was additionally shocking given the monsoon of praise Barbieri received when Sarno appointed him Police Commissioner in 2014.

Barbieri Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno & staff announcing John Barbieri as police head in better times. (WMP&I)

That lovefest, however, masked the tumult behind Sarno’s effort to replace William Fitchet, whom the Control Board had installed. Sarno’s allegedly favored candidate then, Robert McFarlin, was an immensely controversial figure. As talk of highly secretive interviews for commissioner took place—one gossiper placed them at the Barney estate in Forest Park—McFarlin’s opponents mobilized.

Rev. Swan, the late Michaelann Bewsee and Bishop Timothy Paul Bayman penned a letter that blasted McFarlin’s record. If Sarno had preferred McFarlin, he changed course and picked Barbieri.

The transition to Akers has none of this. Clapprood has had her share of controversies from questions about her residency to pirouetting on reinstatements. Yet, she will square dance out of Pearl Street and hand it off to Akers largely unscathed.

But what will Akers do? Although the monitor the city had to hire under federal consent decree has reported progress, public trust in the department remains at a low ebb. Clapprood reportedly restored some morale among the rank and file, but it may not have endured. Indeed, Barbieri, once called a “cop’s cop” had lost the rank & file by the end, too.

Meanwhile, 2023 had record homicides. Some of this is serendipity. Still, it seemed to go for the jugular of one of Sarno’s self-conception: himself as public safety mayor.

Indeed, the one commonality across all the tumult at Pearl Street, excluding misconduct cases from the 1980’s, is the mayor. This speaks to the heart of Akers’s challenge, but Sarno’s as well. It does not matter how broadly Akers is praised if the same factors that undermined or complicated his predecessors’ legacies endure.

Cheryl Clapprood

Clapprood may escape Pearl Street without the fraught transitions of her predecessors, but that may not be enough for Akers to succeed. (via Springfield Police)

Sarno’s rationale for resisting the reinstatement of the Police Commission had long been that a sole leader model kept the politics out of the department. Nobody believes this and indeed it just transferred the politics directly to him. There has long been the sense that in fact political interference from City Hall was only agitating Pearl Street’s own fraught hierarchies.

While the department was hardly a nirvana under the ancient régime, many, including patrolmen historically, liked the open forum the Commission provided. It had practical implications, too. Appeals to the Civil Service Commission would have fuller records to consider rather than just testimony and the notes the hiring/promoting individual scribbled.

Sealing up Pearl Street’s dirty laundry, until and unless The Republican gets a hold of a damning video, might mitigate political problems in one sense. However, it magnifies the feeling within and out of the Police Department that politics—that is, the mayor’s politics—pollutes every decision.

That may not be fair to Sarno. However, only he can change the situation. It is unlikely that he will allow the Police Commission ordinance to proceed as written. However, he still has an opportunity to reboot things with Akers.

Based on the accolades since Monday, this is an inspired choice. Yet, Sarno cannot just bank that good will and walk away.

In Springfield, there is a particular problem of factionalism and cliques that bedevils policing on top. The mayor will have to  resist the urge to intervene in department minutiae and empower Akers to act independently of City Hall. At the same time, Sarno must make clear that the favoritism that has poisoned Pearl Street’s leaders before is unacceptable. Together, this could help restore morale.

Springfield Police

Set Pearl Street free… within limits? (WMP&I)

Beyond Pearl Street, the answer is similar. People need to have confidence in how decisions in their name came to be. While some discipline is meted out publicly at the Police Commission, opacity defines most decisions, including some related to complaints and misconduct.

To the fullest extent possible under the law, Sarno must push and back his new commissioner to air as much information as possible. Transparency is not a one-sided phenomenon, though. It is a relationship and a conversation. Community relations and connections cannot be public relations, but rather channels to distribute information Pearl Street releases and wants residents to understand.

Akers’s leadership is historic and one that could be an opportunity. However, that is contingent on the mayor also breaking with his own history and revising his relationship with Pearl Street and thus the department’s relationship with the city at large.