| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – A majority of the City Council filled its small conference room on Feb. 5 to ask questions of Police Commissioner John Barbieri about the status of the Police Department following a recent jury award of $250,000 in a federal lawsuit against the city and the department.
Lee Hutchins Jr. received the award because of a 2013 incident and Barbieri told councilors much has changed in the department since that time.
The meeting was attended by councilors Tim Allen, Adam Gomez, Tim Ryan, Levin Edwards, Justin Hurst as well as Public Safety Committee members Orlando Ramos, Tracy Whitfield and Jesse Lederman.
The issue of body cameras was also discussed with the council that learned implementation could take up to two years.
Councilor Orlando Ramos of the council’s Public Safety Committee said the trial found in his words “a custom within the city of not disciplining police officers.” Barbieri said the department is now waiting for the final draft form of a report from outside consultants that have assessed the department internal investigations and suggests best practices for it.
“Hopefully we get the changes shortly,” the commissioner said. He added the report will examine how complaints against officer conduct are received, how the investigations are carried out, among other aspects. Barbieri said the department’s command staff, as well as its unions representing the patrol officers and the supervisors were consulted as part of the assessment.
City Solicitor Edward Pikula, also at the meeting, defended the process of reviewing complaints against officers through the Community Police Hearing Board (CPHB). Mayor Domenic Sarno put the CPHB in place in 2010. Its responsibilities include reviewing all civilian complaints against the city’s police officers, investigating the complaints and recommending whether or not there should Barbieri should undertake disciplinary actions.
Members of the council criticized the CPHB in the past several years and the council has voted to re-instate a police commission that would have more power to discipline officers and oversee the department.
Barbieri noted there has been both a decline in crime in the city and a decline in violent responses from officers. He used as an example the fact that use of a police baton in violent exchanges has decreased and the use of Tasers has increased. He said that all officers have been “tased,” including himself as part of their training.
He explained the officers have had de-escalation training as another way to decrease complaints. Under his administration there has been an increased in 3C policing that brings together the members of a neighborhood with the police who are assigned to it. He is also developing audits of all police units to see how resources are being utilized.
Another effort to improve the department has been the acceptance of the patrolman’s union of body cameras, but Barbieri said the timeline of when the cameras would be used has not been determined.
Ramos noted, “It’s been a long process.”
Barbieri replied, “We want to do it right the first time.”
The department will be working with a consultant through a Request for Proposals to finalize details of the project, Barbieri said.
“The goal is to get the best process going as soon as possible,” he noted.
Answering Lederman’s question of a schedule, the commissioner said he has been told it may take one to two years, but added, “I’d like to be closer to six months … the goal would be ASAP.”
Ramos said a two-year wait would be “unacceptable.”
Responding to a question from Allen, Barbieri said the funding for the program is not in this year’s budget, but has been set aside.
He said he would like more answers about body camera operations and practices. “There is no other community our size in Massachusetts with body cameras,” Barbieri added.
Surveys have shown the “vast majority” of people in Springfield feel comfortable with the city’s police and believe they are doing a good job, Barbieri said.
“You can not make improvements until you know what the mistakes are,” he said.