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Barbieri Abruptly Bounces, Leaving More Questions than Answers…

UPDATED 2/22/2019 10:00AM: To reflect a correction. A prior version of this post incorrectly located Bigda’s infamous interrogation in Wilbraham. It was, in fact, in Palmer.

Nearly five years ago, the installation of John Barbieri as commissioner at Old First Church was replete with pomp and circumstance. He didn’t even attend his exit. (WMassP&I)

In a dramatic turn of events, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno announced Thursday in a hastily scheduled press conference that Police Commissioner John Barbieri had retired. Adding to the intrigue, Barbieri’s exit was immediate, rather than serving until his contract expires on May 31. Deputy Chief Cheryl Claprood will serve as interim commissioner.

Barbieri’s retirement came amid a steady stream of police scandals and misconduct cases, many of which have landed in court. Up to now, Sarno had stood with his commissioner. In November, long after a dam of court activity broke open, the mayor stated his intention to extend Barbieri’s contract. Something shifted, but what is unclear.

The mayor had good things to say about the now-former commissioner and thanked him for his service. Sarno called the scenario a “mutually accepted decision per press reports.” Normally such stagecraft would include the principal. But not Thursday afternoon.

Bye, Bye, Bye, Barbieri… (WMassP&I)

In recent years, Pearl Street, Springfield PD’s home, has faced a wave scrutiny for police misconduct, off-duty brawling, and civil and criminal litigation. But Barbieri had weathered the growing opprobrium for the department’s spiral on his watch.

That it ever reached this point is unfortunate. To the extent that Barbieri can claim credit, crime has fallen. Pols and residents tipped hats to Barbieri for expanding C3 and for pushing anti-escalation training. During surges in national police mistrust, he tried to reach out.

Still Pearl Street veered off course. Part of the problem may have been expectations. When Sarno chose Barbierii over Robert McFarlin—whose very consideration sparked vocal opposition—many saw the commissioner as an apolitical figure relative to the department’s factions. By comparison William Fitchet and Paula Meara, two Barbieri predecessors, and certainly McFarlin, has reputations for being political.

But Barbieri’s internal neutrality belied his minimal political sense vis-à-vis City Hall. That may seem like a virtue, but it became a blind spot.

For years, Sarno has claimed, as part of his case against reviving the five-member Police Commission, that a single commissioner he appoints reduces political influence over the department.

Of course, that’s absurd. The city’s top cop reports, in effect, to an elected official. That system may have value, but the politics very much existed. It was never clear Barbieri knew how to maneuver them.

Ultimately, Barbieri may have added to his own burden. (created via wikipedia and city images)

Consequently, Pearl Street denizens questioned and later abandoned presumptions about Barbieri’s apolitical nature. The appearance of Barbieri’s closeness to the mayor probably didn’t help relations with the department’s backbone: the patrolmen.

Contract negotiations got so bad rank and file patrolmen picketed the mayor. While cops elsewhere have bristled at civilian oversight, Springfield’s Finest have historically supported a civilian commission. The old Commission gave cops a venue to air internal grievances—as the new one would. Despite two Council ordinances reviving the Commission, Sarno has insisted a unitary leader for Pearl Street is best.

The mayor’s sway over Barbieri, along with some and operational decisions personal—like his wife’s appointment to sergeant—may have lost him the department’s support.

Mayoral capture is not inevitable. By virtue of his five-year contract, Barbieri had independence few department heads enjoy. Some feel he never used that freedom effectively.

Yet this is inside baseball, largely out of public view. What populated headlines was indicted cops, millions in taxpayer money lost to legal judgments, and an endless parade of unflattering, if banal, department dirty laundry.

Gregg Bigda became the posterchild for Pearl Street problems. Bigda, a detective with an iffy record, was recorded allegedly threatening juvenile suspects in a Palmer holding cell after they stole a cop car. There are also allegations of abuse and racist commentary.

Gregg Bigda, left, in one of the now-infamous videos with a juvenile suspect. Det. Luke Cournoyer looks on at top. (via Twitter/@Masslivenews)

To make matters worse, another detective, Luke Cournoyer, apparently lied to help cover up part of the same incident. He later told federal prosecutors the truth in exchange for immunity.

The tapes brought national attention, but due to bureaucratic and clerical errors, Barbieri and the city missed its chance to can Bigda for the incident. Ostensibly, it was not Barbieri’s fault, but it still stung. Meanwhile, dozens of drug cases Bigda worked disintegrated as his testimony was now worthless.

US Attorney for Mass. Andrew Lelling. (via wikipedia)

All Hell broke lost last year when the US Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling indicted Bidga and a former cop Steven Vigneault for civil rights violations. That the Justice Department of Donald Trump, who while in office literally urged police to rough people up, found cause to charge Bigda only underscores how damning the evidence must be.

A month later Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey indicted several cops who were involved in a fracas outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Grill. The off-duty were charged with assault and battery on civilians.

Barbieri stuck it out through all of it and Sarno planned to reappoint him. Then, Barbieri cashed out.

The language of the announcement implies a voluntary departure—or at least nominally so. Barbieri’s contract permits termination for “performance, moral character, or just cause.” None seem in play here.

It is possible he was asked to resign. However, that would entitle him to his pay through the end of his contract, presumably May 31. It may run through December 1, however, if an automatic extension Barbieri received in November applies. It is not clear he got such a severance, however.

Some think Barbieri must have received a payout, indicating Sarno, eyeing reelection, finally had enough. But if Barbieri left without a severance, that means he opted against demanding one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.
Barbieri as a deputy chief shortly before his selection to be commissioner. (via Springfield City Hall)

Barbieri also leaves without maxing out his pension. Massachusetts retirement tables indicate employees can max out pension (80% of salary) after working 32 years.  Barbieri joined the force in 1988. Hypothetically, he could had taken a demotion to deputy chief and eke out that last year. Former Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant did that after Sarno opted not to reappoint him. Barbieri left entirely.

Why would the commissioner forego such windfalls without a fight?  Barbieri had the upper hand on his severance. Why might he not avail himself of it?

City Hall watchers are looking at what comes out of the US Attorney and Healey’s investigations. Many believe a broader probe of Pearl Street is underway. More discord or charges could yet come out. The stress and frustration of the situation could have simply been too much for Barbieri.

But what if it gets worse? Few believe Barbieri would overtly tolerate police misconduct—indeed, a recent reinstatement emphasizes the difficulty of firing problem cops. But perhaps there is evidence Barbieri so negligently failed to act he became criminally or civilly exposed. Maybe he has already had a heart-to-heart with Lelling’s or Healey’s people. Could he have retired because he is trading up?

Acting Commissioner Cheryl Claprood addresses the media Thursday. (via Springfield City Hall)

For now, Claprood should be a satisfactory interim leader for the department. But Sarno’s intransigence on the commission leaves her with murky authority.

Sarno claims revival of the Police Commission is illegal under the city charter. Thus, he never appointed the Commission, which, under current ordinance, is the appointing authority for Springfield Police. Will any of Claprood’s actions, particularly those pertaining to personnel, be legally enforceable?

City Councilors, who have already demanded Sarno appoint the Commission, held a press conference Friday morning to press their case. But make no mistake, Sarno may have more to explain than how he plans to ignore ordinance and select Pearl Street’s permanent leader.