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Massachusetts top court OKs putting police discipline in hands of citizens

Wading into a national controversy, the justices signed off on a scheme to let unpaid civilians rein in law enforcement officials caught infringing civil liberties.

BOSTON (CN) — Amid a national debate over policing powers, the Massachusetts Supreme Court supported the decision by one of the state's largest cities to replace its police commissioner with an unpaid oversight board of five civilians to deal with a troubled history of ethnically tinged police violence.

The Springfield Police Department, with about 500 officers, has long been accused of excessive force. In 2020 the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report suggesting that police brutality there was disturbingly common: 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.

Two years earlier the federal government had indicted a veteran Springfield sergeant on charges that he 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 were not city employees and who would oversee the department, including police discipline.

Mayor Domenic Sarno, a Democrat who has held office since 2007, vetoed the measure, claiming it infringed on his right to appoint heads of departments. The veto was overridden, but Sarno ignored the override and in 2019 appointed a new commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood, prompting the council to bring a lawsuit.

Springfield's city charter says the mayor can appoint heads of departments but that the council has the right to “reorganize” departments. As the seven-justice court determined unanimously Tuesday, reorganization is what happened here.

“The city council claims … that the 2018 ordinance was clearly within the scope of its power to ‘reorganize’ municipal departments,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote for the court. “We agree.

“The plain meaning of ‘reorganize’ … clearly encompasses changing the structure of the department, including how it shall be overseen,” the 18-page decision continues later.

Kafker called such concerns "especially acute in Springfield where, since at least 2004, allegations of abuse and discrimination against the department have led the community to call for greater civilian control over the police.”

As for Sarno's claim that the council had violated the separation of powers, Kafker said that “the separation of powers does not require three watertight compartments within the government."

Springfield had a five-member civilian board starting in 1902 and switched to a professional police commissioner only in 2005 at the insistence of a board that took over running the city during a financial crisis. In other words, the five-member board was not a new plan but a reversion to prior practice.

Springfield boasts the Basketball Hall of Fame — the game was invented there in 1891 — and a museum in honor of children's author 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.

Clapprood, who like Sarno is white, has been an object of protests demanding her resignation as well as a petition to remove her with almost 2,500 signatures. She has faced questions over 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.

That “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 oral argument in December, Justice David Lowy wondered if the mayor could find five civilians willing to take the unpaid jobs. “Good luck being able to fill those positions,” he said.

But the city 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.”

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