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Sarno's new police review board gets negative reactions

Date: 2/10/2010

Feb. 10, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor


SPRINGFIELD -- The announcement on Feb. 2 of an executive order creating a new civilian oversight board by Mayor Domenic Sarno has become the first major political controversy of the new year.

Sarno's new board was less than a week old before City Councilor James Ferrera attempted to scuttle it with legislation that would create a new entity not unlike the former police commission at Monday's City Council meeting.

Ferrera's proposal was sent to the public health and safety subcommittee for further discussion. Ferrera said he expects hearings to take place in the next several weeks.

Sarno's action, which will replaces the former Community Complaint Review Board (CCRB) on Feb. 23, has been criticized by the patrolman's union, members of the City Council and community activists.

Sarno said the new board will bring "integrity and fairness on both sides of the issue" when reviewing cases.

Attorney Cynthia Tucker, appointed to chair the new board, described the board's functions as a "natural progression."

Unlike the former board, the new seven-member Community Police Review Board (CPRB) will provide Police Commissioner William Fitchet with members to act as hearing officers in cases of alleged police misconduct. The board members will be able to recommend disciplinary actions. Fitchet can then chose to implement the punishment.

The board will not be able to investigate complaints on its own and Fitchet is not bound to follow its findings.

During a press conference on Feb. 2, Sarno emphasized Fitchet has always used the recommendations of a hearing officer in dealing with such matters.

Fitchet explained that complaints could be made at the Police Department on Pearl Street or online. All complaints come to his office and they are then investigated internally within a period of 90 days. If the investigation indicates there is reason for a hearing, then Fitchet selects from one to three members of the board to act as hearing officers.

These hearings would be subject to the open meeting law and would be public unless the hearing officers chose to go into executive session.

The commissioner pledged the cooperation of his department.

Sarno said the incident involving Officer Jeffrey Asher would not fall under the jurisdiction of the new board. Based on the police commissioners's explanation at the press conference, the 90-day investigation period for Asher could end after the new board comes to authority.

At the press conference City Solicitor Edward Pikula explained the new board was created in such a way as not to infringe on civil service laws, the contracts with the police commissioner and collective bargaining agreements.

Where the controversy lies is in the timing of the announcement of the board, Sarno's sidestepping the involvement of the City Council and the agreement by both community activists frequently critical of the police and the police themselves is that the city needs is a return of the civilian-run police commission.

At the press conference, Sarno said his administration "has been working on this [board] for quite a while." His answer came as a reply to a question if the new board was a reaction to the on-going police brutality investigation concerning Asher.

At a City Council sub-committee meeting on Thursday, though, Officer Joseph Gentile, president of the Patrolman's Union, said Pikula had crafted the new board in the last two weeks.

Pikula, who attended the city council meeting, did not contradict Gentile's statement and opened the meeting with an admonition that those attending should stick with the issue of the new board and not speak about any on-going investigations.

"It's not the purpose of this meeting nor is it the purpose of the City Council [to speak on individual cases]," Pikula said.


Sarno also said he had spoken about the new board with members of the City Council who had "reached out to him" and at the sub-committee meeting Thomas Ashe said he was one of those councilors who had spoken to the mayor.

Councilor Kateri Walsh asked Pikula at the sub-committee meeting what the role of the City Council is in this issue.

Pikula explained the mayor chose to create the new board through an executive order rather than go the legislative route through the City Council. He added the executive order could be amended by ordinance by the City Council.

City Councilor E. Henry Twiggs questioned whether or not the mayor could form the board in they way that he did. Pikula assured him he could.

Gentile told the city councilors the patrolman's union was not in support of the new board. He said if the board and its new powers are a way to help diffuse racial tensions in the city "it's going to fall far short."

Gentile said the union members would rather see the return of a civilian police commission that would have the powers to hire, discipline, fire and commend officers. Right now, he explained, all of the responsibility is with the police commissioner. Re-instituting a police commission -- which was disbanded by the Finance Control Board -- would give the police commissioner greater time for the hands-on management of the police department, Gentile asserted.

"Civilian review is something we recommend. We need it in this city to build trust," Gentile said.

He added that to help build better relations the department should also reinstate a community-policing model in which officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods to create relationships.

The Rev. Talbot Swan, a man who has frequently been critical of police actions in the city, echoed Gentile's call for a civilian police commission. He made his remarks on the "Bax and O'Brien Show" on Friday.

Sarno said at the press conference with Springfield's strong mayor city charter he could create this board without the direct involvement of the City Council.

"As mayor I am the one to held responsible," he said.