UPDATED 3/17/14 5:52PM: To include details of press release from community groups on McFarlin and his response to the release on Masslive.
This post is the third in a series on the debate over Management of the Springfield Police Department.
Since announcing how he would select the next Police Commissioner, Mayor Domenic Sarno has offered little more than vague insistence on local talent. Details like dates of service, complaints or even commendations are the things of archived newspaper articles, not press releases. There is precious little about any of the three deputy chiefs’ philosophy, strategic plans, or vision for the department.
The three deputy chiefs, John Barbieri, William Cochrane and Robert McFarlin, are the only individuals Sarno is considering to succeed William Fitchet in June. At the same time, many sources have said McFarlin is Sarno’s pick and that the non-public “interview” process is a show.
Deputy Chief Robert McFarlin has had a colorful and at times tumultuous career that spans five decades. It crosses some of the darker moments in the department’s recent history from an alleged act of political vandalism to Jeffrey Asher, the former police officer at the heart of the Melvin Jones case.
A request to make the three deputy chiefs available for interviews was submitted to the department. Sgt. John Delaney said he would follow up, but that did not happen. An email to Delaney asked him to extend an invitation to the deputy chiefs to contact WMassP&I. Requests for comment from Commissioner Fitchet and the mayor’s office about the three men were unanswered as of posting time.
At the same time, many, if not most of those interviewed for this story, declined to speak on the record about McFarlin. A screed mailed to The Afro-American Point of View was likewise unsigned. The descriptions among those who know him, range from “polarizing” to “personable.” Others are suspicious.
On Monday March 17, six days after this report initially ran, the heads of the Springfield NAACP, Arise for Social Justice and the Springfield Council of Churches released a scathing statement on Sarno’s selection process and on McFarlin’s record including damning allegations about his career in the department. Many were outlined in the original version of this story, but others were not including claims unprofessional and disrespectful behavior toward residents, colleagues and superiors. Their full statement is available here.
McFarlin, in some of his few public remarks on the selection process, dismissed those concerns in an interview with Masslive saying he could not hold his current position if his reputation and relationship with residents “was not exemplary.”
McFarlin has appeared in countless news reports and several court actions, including some he initiated, offering a window into his career and life.
In one case, McFarlin sued Arise for Social Justice, a community group in Springfield, for libel in a letter inadvertently left behind by an Arise staffer. It never got very far according to Arise’s Executive Director Michaelann Bewsee, and ended with an apology, but “no money changed hands.”
Written by Nancy Lyman-Shaver, then Arise’s Criminal Justice Coordinator and attached to McFarlin’s complaint as “Exhibit A,” the letter alludes to a January 28, 1994 incident in which cars near the Paramount Theater were ticketed during an Urban League event. It alleged “McFarlin issied [sic] that order” and it was carried out by officers Lyman-Shaver described as involved in a “racist incident.”
The letter was addressed to a Community Relations official in the US Justice Department as part of a broader plea for help with police-community relations. Bewsee said the letter was a draft (it was clearly unedited for even spelling), not ready for delivery.
The case did not advance and it is unclear exactly what McFarlin felt was defamatory. In his complaint, he alleges libel and civil conspiracy, namely that Lyman-Shaver and Arise intended to “impugn [his] personal and professional reputation and character” that caused reputational damage and “severe emotional pain and distress.” McFarlin sued under two standards for libel: negligent and reckless or intentional. As a public employee, he probably could not prevail on the former, but perhaps the latter.
The US Supreme Court ruled during the Civil Rights era public officials must prove, among other things, a defendant acted with “actual malice” to win a defamation suit. Negligence is not enough.
Bewsee said she and others who have been at Arise for some time “remember Bob McFarlin’s lawsuit very well and still believe that if we hadn’t been organizing for more police accountability, [the suit] never would have happened.” In an email she remarked, “If he became police commissioner, how could he regain our trust, and the trust of the community– or would it even matter to him to do so?”
McFarlin joined the force in 1978 and rose to the rank of lieutenant by the time of the Arise suit, shortly after Cochrane and later became a captain at the same time as Cochrane in 1996. McFarlin was elevated to deputy chief under Fitchet in 2008 alongside Barbieri, Cochrane and another captain.
A member in the East Forest Park Civic Association, who requested anonymity because he intended to work with whomever Sarno selects, said he liked McFarlin. But he described him as “theatrical” during presentations at Police Sector H meetings. As deputy chief he commanded Sectors H & I for a time.
Sal Circosta, a 2013 Ward 3 Council candidate who used to own Sal’s Bakery at the “X” in Forest Park, said McFarlin was “personable” and a frequent patron. Circosta, who now works for a church in Agawam said McFarlin often emphasized he was from Springfield and a “Holy Cross guy,” a reference to the Plumtree Road church which is the home parish to many of the city’s Roman Catholic who’s who.
Press accounts of McFarlin’s career range wildly from largely drug arrests when he worked for the narcotics unit to litigation and his role as commander of the detective bureau and deputy chief.
Among media reports was a 1993 incident community activists today point to. In February of that year the late former Councilor Morris “Mo” Jones cast the deciding vote to sustain Mayor Robert Markel’s veto of additional money for police educational incentives. McFarlin was assigned to keep order at the Council meeting. The next morning, Jones found his car window broken and tires punctured, according to contemporary reports in The Springfield Union-News, the predecessor to today’s Republican.
The paper reported that a police radio recording had a man’s voice like McFarlin’s issuing a call for officers to look for parking violations by Jones, who died in 2009. The Union-News, reporting later in 1993 said the Civil Service Commission, “noted that McFarlin, broadcast the vote over the police radio” and later gave out a description of a car and license plate “believed to be parked illegally.” The article indicates McFarlin told his commanding officer he had no idea this was Jones’s car.
The incident clearly touched a nerve. Even though Jones was the only black city councilor, the focus was not on race. The Springfield NAACP’s then-president Ben Swan, now a State Rep, told the Union-News. “I wasn’t talking about a color thing,” but rather, “a breakdown in civil authority.” The same article described support for Jones at the time, but his political career, which ended the same year, has gotten mixed reviews. Jones himself partly attributed his defeat to the Quinn Bill vote.
The Police Commission, then chaired by Urban League president Henry Thomas, demoted McFarlin to sergeant afterward, but the State Civil Service Commission reversed them and courts consistently backed him and the agency’s decision. The Police Commission’s refusal to immediately reinstate McFarlin became another legal flashpoint.
Sgt. Kenneth Gustaferson, who testified for McFarlin, told the paper then “the media, both print and TV, caused him and his family pain and suffering that was not justified or warranted.” The Union-News did not agree. In an editorial the paper said the ruling “tells Springfield that its civilians have neither the judgment nor the power to effectively direct – or control – the Police Department.”
McFarlin and his wife later sued the city for inflicting emotional distress. A 1999 Union-News article indicated they ultimately settled for the cost of McFarlin’s legal bills during the ordeal.
McFarlin’s rise to deputy chief would be at issue in another Civil Service complaint. Fitchet demoted acting deputy chiefs Mark Anthony and William Noonan and promoted McFarlin and Kevin Dudley to deputy. Both new deputies, a source familiar with the department claimed, were close to Fitchet. Anthony appealed to Civil Service arguing he was better qualified, but did not prevail. He scored higher than those two on written exams, but not on verbal exams given by Fitchet and two police captains.
Fitchet’s processes did depart from some past practices. A litany of 2002 articles detail the deliberation and solicitation to the public for input. Fitchet’s closed-door selection process has resulted in promotions that, former police officals claim, “are extremely controversial.” Fitchet also gave McFarlin a “two-star” designation, one of the signs many say proves McFarlin is set to be the next commissioner.
Observers of the department, while not advocating a McFarlin commissionerhood, cautioned that top cops like Fitchet and former chief Paula Meara were “polarizing” too and expected McFarlin, who already was, would be the same. Barbieri and Cochrane were not now polarizing, the observer allowed.
One question Fitchet asked deputy chief candidates, the Commission ruling notes, was how they would handle political influences. Civil Service only had interviewers’ notes to analyze, but said Anthony promised to avoid it and bring issues to the commissioner. McFarlin’s answer was called “detailed” and “covered appropriate areas of concern.” Dudley’s gave “a good common sense response.”
The political interference question was only one of many asked, but it is notable. Of the three deputy chiefs, McFarlin is by far more politically active. Since 2006 McFarlin and his wife have contributed, about $2500 to campaign coffers, over a third of which to Sarno. Barbieri or Cochrane had nearly none.
McFarlin also took an interest in last year’s Ward 3 race, backing Circosta’s bid to unseat Melvin Edwards, according to an observer of the race. He frequented Sal’s Baker to show support for Circosta, but stopped after Edwards won reelection. When asked about this, Circosta declined to comment.
It is not the politicking or the internal beefs that trouble community groups. McFarlin was either a defendant or had cameos in several police misconduct suits filed against the city in both federal and state court stretching back to the 1980’s. Among those WMassP&I analyzed, most were dismissed according to court documents and media reports, or less often, settled. None reviewed made it to a jury.
Some were against McFarlin only as a commanding officer such as Louis Jiles’s suit (Fitchet was also sued). Jiles settled but his case was credited by The Valley Advocate with awakening the mayoral police review board. A push for a new, strong Commission to replace that board has been concurrent with the selection of a new commissioner.
In Jiles’s case, McFarlin may have been an ancillary, but he was right in the middle of another. Lucy Jones and her family had their run-ins with the police including a 1999 brutality claim against a different cop. An attempt to serve papers on her home led her family to go Police Headquarters in September 2004, according to media accounts and Lucy Jones’s 2008 complaint. After exchanging words with the officer at the window an altercation broke out that included McFarlin, according to members of the Police Commission at the time.
Police Department video shows McFarlin enter the fray and Lucy Jones eventually on the ground, but has no sound and offers few answers why or how. In her 2008 complaint she alleged McFarlin used use his knee to hold her down. She settled out of court and per media accounts, an internal investigation report cleared McFarlin and other officers of any wrongdoing.
The above video was not titled by WMassP&I and does not reflect our assessment of its contents.
The incident may have marked a further decline in McFarlin’s relationship with then-Chief Meara. News reports at the time said only McFarlin and officers outside her inner circle were investigated.
McFarlin’s support for Jeffrey Asher over the years has been flagged by community groups as proof the two were of like minds, but police observers say it was really more a show of disrespect to Meara. They say she went out on a limb to pursue the investigation of Asher after he was recorded kicking a suspect in 1997. As the investigation unfolded (and ultimately led to Asher’s suspension), McFarlin often appeared by his side.
Twelve years later, Asher was filmed again, this time assaulting Melvin Jones. Fitchet fired Asher after the Melvin Jones tape surfaced. Asher went to jail in 2012 after being convicted of assaulting Melvin Jones. He served 8 months of an 18 month sentence.
The 1997 ordeal marked a reversal for the Meara and McFarlin’s relationship. McFarlin was quoted in the Union-News saying during his interview to become a captain that he ”was a supporter of Chief Meara before it was a popular position to do so.” After Asher was suspended, Meara reassigned McFarlin from commanding a shift to the records division.
Given the sheer length of McFarlin’s career, many records and recollections may have been lost to time and memory. Among what remains, many do not wish to speak or city bureaucracy moves to recover files more slowly than the current pace of picking Fitchet’s successor. Some say McFarlin may leave the force if not appointed commissioner. The biggest question for his career is whether he will cap it at the top as many believe (or lament) Sarno has already decided.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As a reminder several of the principals of this story did not respond to requests for comment. Should they respond subsequent to posting, their submissions will be considered for inclusion in an update.