In fight about police oversight, Mass. high court sides with Springfield City Council over mayor

Massachusetts' highest court has ruled in favor of the Springfield City Council in its lawsuit against Mayor Domenic Sarno regarding oversight of the police department.

The council sued Sarno after he refused to implement multiple ordinances bringing back a five-member police commission to oversee the department, instead of a single commissioner.

The Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling in the council's favor, which said councilors had the right to reorganize the police department, and their efforts did not infringe upon the mayor's powers in the city charter.

"As cities across the country consider changes to their police departments to ensure greater accountability, control over these decisions can be hotly contested, as it is in [this] case," Justice Scott Kafker wrote in the decision. "Rather than give the mayor essentially complete authority over the police department as he claims here, the statutes provide the city council with the legislative power to reorganize the department to determine its oversight structure while the mayor retains the executive power of appointment over the commission the council establishes."

Attorney Tom Lesser, representing the council pro bono, said Tuesday he hopes Sarno acts quickly to appoint members to the board.

"This has been going on for almost four years at this point in time," Lesser said. "The mayor spent a tremendous amount of money fighting the case, and we have a decision from the highest court of Massachusetts, and the mayor should immediately act in accordance with it."

Sarno hired outside counsel, Michael P. Angelini, to represent the city in the case. In a public records request, NEPM has requested payment details.

In a statement, Sarno said he "accepts [the] responsibility" of appointing the police commissioners and will do so "shortly." But his reaction also signaled the debate over control of the department is not over.

"[T]he Supreme Judicial Court’s decision did nothing at all to diminish in any way my authority as Mayor to appoint and determine the responsibilities of that individual who is charged with the management and operation of the Springfield Police Department. I will continue to exercise that responsibility," Sarno said. "Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood will lead the Springfield Police Department, as she continues to move the department forward."

Some on the City Council, as well as Springfield community leaders and advocates, have called for Clapprood to be replaced.

In its opinion, the court acknowledged Sarno would continue to hold considerable sway over the police department.

"The real conflict here is not between the statutory provisions but who will have control over the department, and the selection of the police chief," the court wrote, before declining to settle that issue. "We further note, however, that the mayor appoints all five members of the board, so his power to influence, if not control, the selection of any police chief is significant, even when the city council has created a five-person board of police commissioners."

Still, the court acknowledged the high stakes of the case, saying the dispute was "rooted in both parties' understandable concerns for how one of the most, if not the most, important and powerful departments of a modern city government should be run."

"These concerns are 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," the court wrote.

Justices also noted a scathing Department of Justice report from 2020, which alleged a pattern of excessive force in the narcotics bureau.

NEPM's Sam Hudzik contributed to this report.

This story is part of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.



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