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Retreat or Piling Sandbags? Council Confronts Pearl Street Deluge…

Flood zone. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Facing a rising tide of scandal flowing from the Springfield Police Department, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee reviewed legislation on Thursday that aims to contain the latest runoff. The ordinance, would essentially reverse efforts to revive the Police Commission and codify the mayor’s police complaint hearing board. But, critically, it endows that panel with the power to issues subpoenas.

The revelation that this absence of power frustrated city probes into the 2015 Nathan Bill’s fracas has swept the Law Department into the gathering storm of scrutiny in Springfield. But councilors were skeptical. They peppered an unusually combative Ed Pikula, the city solicitor, with questions about the new law’s need and purpose while gleaning info about ongoing state and federal investigations into the Police Department.

At-large Councilor Timothy Ryan and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton proposed the legislation, which the mayor supports. For weeks there had been talk of growing unease among some Police Commission supporters—which includes Fenton and Ryan—about the standoff with the mayor. Mayor Domenic Sarno has refused to acknowledge the ordinance that resurrected the Commission, arguing it infringed on his mayoral powers under the charter.

Those fears escalated when John Barbieri tucked and rolled out of the commissioner’s seat. Sarno appointed Cheryl Claprood acting commissioner. Yet, by definition, her post no longer legally exists, throwing her authority into doubt.

Councilor Michael Fenton in 2016. (WMassP&I)

What prompted Fenton and Ryan to act, however, was Masslive’s report about the Law Department discarding evidence in the Nathan Bill’s case. The city obtained text message records that implicated cops in the alleged beating, but ostensibly via an unauthorized subpoena. To avoid a union grievance, the city disposed of the messages—but never sought to obtain them through other means.

The new ordinance would re-erect the sole-Commissioner position, paired with a complaint review board etched into ordinance. Various city departments would be directed to assist and staff the board during complaint investigations. The Commissioner must brief it on changes in the department. All final hiring, firing, promotion and discipline decisions would remain in the Police Commissioner’s hands.

Ryan, a former Police Commissioner before his stint on the Council from 1994 to 2003, said this would be an improvement over the old Commission.

Councilor Tim Ryan in 2017. (via Facebook/Ryan campaign)

“We kind of fended for ourselves,” he said of the old Commission. “We came up with the discipline and the procedure.”

Fenton spoke in favor of the issue almost more out of exasperation than heartfelt to desire to change course on the commission.

Real problems, like the subpoena issue, have come to the fore and need action to correct.

“I support and continue to support efforts to revive a police commission,” he said. But, Fenton continued, “We’ve been in this stalemate,” referring to Sarno’s obstinance.

Although the 2010 executive order that first created Sarno’s complaint panel included subpoena power, mayors cannot grant that authority. Nonetheless, successive executive orders, including the most recent one issued in 2017, mention that power. The City Council has inherent subpoena power under state law and courts have ruled municipal legislatures may delegate it to bodies they create.

Strangely, Pikula tell Council President Justin Hurst the complaint board never tried to use this authority other than the star-crossed evidence in the Nathan Bill’s case. Rather, the city often works through grand juries (i.e. criminal investigations) or through Civil Service.

“We always had the power to request subpoenas,” Pikula said of the city’s investigatory options.

Council President Justin Hurst in January. (still via Focus Springfield)

Yet, the solicitor also deflected Hurst’s later questions about why the city hadn’t sought Council authority to obtain subpoena power earlier.

But Pikula’s seemed far more keen on discussing the the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report. The city paid PERF to look into Pearl Street and particularly its internal affairs division. The report includes recommendations, though councilors and Pikula differed on whether it pans civilian control of police organizations.

Pikula highlighted how the new ordinance would expand the complaint board to recruit more diverse members. The larger panel could also break into hearing groups and have a quorum to hold meetings more easily.

The city has only publicized PERF’s executive summary. Pikula said the full 120+ page document faces 30 to 60 days of city review alongside PERF and the United States Department of Justice. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman pressed Pikula on whether the Council could see if before any revisions happen. Pikula played down the full summary as mere background, but also as something not subject to open record law.

But Pikula also played up the report as critical—the view of experts the city paid for an opinion.

Councilor Jesse Lederman (via Twitter/@JLLederman)

Lederman and later Hurst demurred on the new ordinance without reviewing the full PERF report. At Lederman’s suggestion, Pikula seemed open to previewing the draft in executive session.

Pikula outlined the timeline of investigations into the Pearl Street throughout the meeting, too. For example, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni ended his probe into the Nathan Bill’s incident in February 2017. Within a year, state Attorney General Maura Healey was investigating the Nathan Bill’s case, the solicitor said. Healey’s office first issued indictments in the case last year. Officers involved in an alleged cover up were charged in March.

The US Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, is prosecuting the Gregg Bigda case, but the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in Washington is investigating the Police Department overall. Pikula noted that PERF has discussed its review of Pearl Street with officials at Justice in Washington.

City Solicitor Ed Pikula (via Twitter/@attyemp)

At one point, Pikula insisted passage of the new ordinance would forestall any onerous demands from DOJ. City Hall watchers think the Springfield Law Department is hoping to avoid a consent decree.

Councilors observed the PERF report faulted inconsistent and unclear management from department brass. Even notification about complaints were portrayed as muddled and unclear. These matters are independent of the Police Commssion debate.

Councilors, including the new ordinance’s sponsors, are loathe to cave to a mayor after he defied a duly passed law reviving the Police Commission.  The bill appears on Monday’s agenda, but its fate is uncertain. More review or a peak at PERF report may come before action on the legislation.

If councilors ultimately pass the bill, it won’t be out of conviction. Rather, it means they chose to move to higher ground.