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If two heads are better than one, how about five? Police oversight divides local leaders

Claims of brutality and racial bias spurred calls for reform, but the push to put civilians in charge of officer discipline now faces Massachusetts high court scrutiny.

BOSTON (CN) — Amid a national debate over policing powers, the Massachusetts Supreme Court struggled Monday to decide whether the law backs the formation of an unpaid oversight board of five civilians to replace the police commissioner of a city with a troubled history of ethnically tinged police violence.

After the Springfield City Council voted to do just that, the mayor, who appointed the current police commissioner, claimed the council’s move infringed on his authority to decide who runs city departments.

Justice Scott Kafker was skeptical of the mayor’s claim. “The city council could abolish the police department if it wanted to, couldn’t it?” he asked the mayor’s lawyer, Michael Angelini of Bowditch and Dewey in Worcester.

“Yes,” Angelini conceded.

“But it can’t replace one head with five?” Kafker asked.

Later, however, Kafker agreed that the council’s ability to reorganize the department was limited. “Where to draw the line is hard to determine,” he fretted.

Justice David Lowy worried that it might be near-impossible for the mayor to find five people willing to do the unpaid work. “Good luck being able to fill those positions,” he said.

But the council’s lawyer, Thomas Lesser of Lesser, Newman & Nassar in Northampton, suggested wryly that “it might be very possible to find five good friends of the mayor who would love to serve.”

Springfield boasts the Basketball Hall of Fame (the game was invented there in 1891) and a museum in honor of Dr. Seuss, who was born there. But while it’s the fourth-largest city in New England with 155,000 residents, it’s one of the poorest; it ranks 297th out of 298 Massachusetts cities and towns in per-capita income with 23% of its citizens below the poverty line.

It’s also a racially diverse city where 49% of the residents are Latino, 29% are white and 16% are African American.

The Springfield police department, with about 500 officers, has long been accused of excessive force. In July 2020 the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report suggesting that police brutality was common due to “systemic deficiencies in policies, accountability systems, and training.” For instance, police were not required to report that they punched or kicked someone. Officers routinely covered up unnecessary violence, and higher-ups in the department simply ignored it.

In October 2018 the federal government indicted a veteran Springfield sergeant who allegedly kicked a teenager in the head, spat on him and said “welcome to the white man’s world.” The sergeant allegedly threatened to crush the youth’s skull, have him attacked by a police dog and plant cocaine on him to “fucking get away with it.”

It was in that year that the city council voted to replace the police commissioner with five unpaid civilians who would oversee the department, including police discipline.

Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has held office since 2007, vetoed the measure, but the veto was overridden. Sarno then ignored the new rule, prompting the council to sue.

The city’s charter gives the mayor absolute authority to appoint heads of departments, although the city council has the ability to “reorganize” a department. So the question is whether replacing the commissioner with a citizens’ board is simply a “reorganization” or an infringement on the mayor’s authority.

In 2019 Sarno appointed a new commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood, who, like Sarno, is white. There have been protests demanding her resignation, and the petition to remove her has about 2,500 signatures.

Clapprood, who makes $190,000 a year, faced questions for her handling of a long-running case in which the state indicted 14 current and former Springfield police officers for participating in a bar brawl and covering it up. In April 2020 she reinstated five of the officers even though their criminal charges were still pending.

This “sends the wrong message,” said City Council President Justin Hurst, who is Black. “They pose a risk to our residents … and could subject the city to a myriad lawsuits and cases being thrown out if these officers are ultimately convicted.”

At times Kafker seemed to lean in the council’s favor. The mayor “gets to pick all five heads and he can fire all five heads. He gets to do everything; he just doesn’t get to decide how the department is structured. So I don’t see why there’s an inconsistency,” he said.

Angelini argued that, under the council’s logic, it could demand a 100-person oversight board, and several justices seemed receptive to the idea that this would be an infringement on the mayor’s ability to run the city. Justice Dalila Wendlandt asked Lesser if the council could appoint a 100-member board.

“If the city council chose in its infinite ignorance to do that, it would have that right,” Lesser answered, perhaps not casting his client in the strongest light.

But Lesser also pointed out that, for a century prior to the current arrangement, the city had a civilian oversight board. “This wasn’t some radical idea,” he complained. “We just went back to what we had done before for 100 years.”

Lesser argued that allowing the city council to reorganize the department respected the separation of powers. But Angelini countered that allowing the mayor to appoint whomever he wants also respected the separation of powers.

“You should limit the council’s ability to reorganize to ways that don’t infringe on the mayor’s power of appointment and punch it in the nose,” he urged the court.

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