Getting Answers: closer look at Springfield’s Board of Police Commissioners

Getting Answers: closer look at Springfield’s Board of Police Commissioners
Updated: Jun. 23, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - The five members of Springfield’s Board of Police Commissioners have held three executive sessions since being appointed in March. This follows a lengthy court battle over the creation of the commission and a federal investigation into officers’ use of force.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Gary Berte, chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners.

The board is comprised of five civilian members who have the final say in reappointing, firing, and disciplining officers.

“We’re focusing on the disciplinary process because the Department of Justice is requiring a lot of changes,” Berte explained.

The creation of the commission comes as the department entered a consent agreement in April between the city and the Department of Justice to set new controls on the use of police force, require officers to report all uses of force, and intervene to prevent excessive force by fellow officers. The move comes after a DOJ report two years ago found officers in the now-renamed narcotics unit:

“Engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force” and “failed to report use of force incidents.”

The commission is charged with holding police officers accountable, conducting disciplinary hearings, doling out punishment or termination, and board member Albert Tranghese said they’ve already begun.

“I’ve had nights that I’ve had trouble sleeping because you feel very bad for the person, but you know it’s the best for the community and that’s what you have to do,” Tranghese noted.

Although he won’t comment on the disciplinary actions taken thus far, as they’re exempt from disclosure under state law, he said he’s confident with the decisions made on certain officers, even when the board is split.

“No matter if you were on the ‘yes’ side of the table or the ‘no’ side, it doesn’t matter. You feel good when you walk away from that table,” Tranghese explained.

The majority rules, though officers can appeal and go before an arbitration board.

“…But ultimately, as far as the city of Springfield goes, the police commission now has the ability to discipline officers any way we see fit,” Berte noted.

Although Springfield did have a police commission dating back to the 1900s, its resurrection is a long time coming. In 2016, the city council voted to bring the commission back. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno vetoed it and said:

“It’s not in the city’s best interest to step back in time to return to a system that was, in the not-so-distant past, called ‘dysfunctional’ by experts in police administration.”

A six-year-long court battle ended this year with the state’s highest court ruling the council could create a commission. Sarno said he respected the decision and that the ruling gives the board subpoena power:

“Something I have sought for several years, so that they have all the tools at their disposal to conduct thorough investigations.”

Tranghese added, “We all feel that we are getting all the information we need and if we need more, we can get it.”

The commissioners are undergoing training in labor and civil service law while working to formulate new disciplinary processes.

“To decide on different levels of punishment and what type of discipline should we impose on this type of violation, so yeah, there’s a lot of work,” Berte said.

This is a volunteer position. Berte is a criminal justice professor and Tranghese is a retiree.

“You wouldn’t do this if you didn’t care. You want to make a difference in your world and our world is Springfield, so that’s what we’re all hoping to do,” Berte explained.

The commission is holding public meetings with neighborhood groups to explain what they do.

“That’s the big thing is we want the communities to know we’re their board,” Berte noted.

Their goal is to create a true community police department, a fair system of accountability, but laying the groundwork has only just begun.

“We just need time. We’ve asked the people to be patient,” Berte added.

The commission will not have day-to-day oversight of the department. Springfield Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood has command of that, as well as hiring, promotions, and assignments.