Amid Protests, Sarno Proposes a Trinity of Action…or a 3-card Monte?…
UPDATED 4:32PM: To include reaction from AG Healey’s office.
SPRINGFIELD—In an abrupt reversal, Mayor Domenic Sarno apologized for the reinstatement of five cops charged with lying to investigators looking into the 2015 fracas outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant. In a late morning press conference Tuesday, he called for their re-suspension pending final disposition of their criminal cases. It was one of three actions Sarno promised after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but he insisted the Police Commission should not return.
Instead the mayor again plugged an ordinance the Council has rejected many times. Over the years, councilors have considered multiple bills that would codify what is now the Community Police Hearing Board (CPHB). More recent proposals would also give the panel subpoena power, but the Council and community activists contend the advisory nature of the board is insufficient.
The Nathan Bill’s incident concerns the alleged assault off-duty police officers committed against a group of men, including Herman Cumby, who is black. Attorney General Maura Healey indicted officers for the assault in 2018. Those officers have been under suspension since their arrests.
Healey’s office later charged other officers for various violations related to covering up the assault itself. The charges have been dismissed against some in that group, but five still face trial. Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood reinstated them in April, only to pull them off the street after federal and state authorities warned that the cops could not be armed indictees.
Councilors and black leaders widely panned the move at the time and their re-suspension has been a demand of local Floyd protesters.
“I meant no disrespect to our black community,” Sarno said, apologizing for the reinstatements.
Officials have offered various justifications for the move. Clapprood has implied it was an act of mercy, noting unemployed officers face an indeterminate start to their trials. At his press conference, Sarno cited concerns about adequate staffing early in the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We were down early on a number of police office with the COVID-19 coronavirus,” he said.
Healey’s office declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
Agreeing that racism was a public health threat, the Mayor also announced an Office of Racial Equity would be erected within the city’s Department of Health & Human Services. The outbreak of COVID-19 has laid bare the racial inequities in healthcare access and public health throughout the country.
Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris, who is black, has been outspoken about this dynamic. During COVID-19 updates, she has highlighted that the outbreak has disproportionately hurt on the poor and people of color. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and the subsequent national protests have galvanized her emphasis on the issue.
“It is important to understand that public health is a social justice movement rooted in science,” she said in Monday’s city coronavirus briefing. She noted how racism and classism are barriers to achieving the objectives of public health.
Sarno’s decision to establish this office would appear to reflect that concern. WMP&I has sought clarification about the method and shape of its institution.
However, the mayor’s third action, an ordinance to codify his CPHB, was not especially new.
The Finance Control Board abolished the Police Commission in 2005, which had civilian oversight of the department. The CPHB’s roots date to a panel then-Mayor Charles Ryan instituted in 2007. After Sarno took office in 2008, it underwent various changes by executive order.
The Council has consistently rejected codifying the CPHB. Early efforts faltered amid opposition from patrolmen. They did not oppose community oversight, but preferred a Police Commission that could air internal complaints, too. Community members also disliked that the complaint board’s determinations are nonbinding. However, the mayor maintained that the sole police commissioners under him always followed or exceeded that panel’s disciplinary recommendations.
“They’ve respected that board,” Sarno claimed Tuesday.
After the Nathan Bill’s events and the Gregg Bigda scandal, the Council had the political momentum to restore the Police Commission over Sarno’s veto. The mayor has refused to implement it, though, claiming then, and now, that the setup violates the charter.
Following years of stalemate, internal indecision and failures to secure an independent attorney, councilors are now considering an offer of pro bono counsel. These lawyers could represent the Council in an action suing the mayor to enforce the ordinance.
At his press conference, Sarno asserted that the ordinance violated the city charter. When asked how it was invalid if the ordinance lets him appoint the Police Commission—consistent with the city charter—the mayor deflected and shifted to a policy argument. He noted that the current system is “modern,” adding that the old Commission was sluggish and unfair.
“The point is that one person, the police commissioner, he or she,” he said, “should have the authority to run the day-to-day operations of said department, with civilian oversight pertaining to disciplinary actions if needed.”
Sarno also cited the problems the old Police Commission had and exhorted the media to recall such stories about those problems.
The mayor called his legislation a compromise, though with whom is a mystery.
There had been an effort to rollback the reborn Commission last year. The push last year came amid concerns that the CPHB lacked subpoena power, as a creation of executive order. Only the Council can grant subpoena power to city entities that do not otherwise possess it under state law.
However, opponents bottled it up in committee. The chances of passage were slim.