According to the Springfield Police, you might be a gang member if you're a kid, ride a bike, and carry a backpack.
Here's what happened: Jeff, a friend of the family, 20 year old Puerto Rican kid, has been stopped twice by a Springfield MA police officer while riding his bike-- once late afternoon and once late evening; once by Allen and Plumtree, once in the North End. Both times the officer asked for identification and "asked" to look in his bag. Both times my friend complied. One officer was polite and one was verbally abusive.
My friend wanted to know if he had the right to refuse to open his backpack. I said that in general, he did have that right (at least one exception would be if the officer felt a weapon was present in the bag and he might be in danger) but that I couldn't guarantee him the outcome if he did.
Just for the hell of it, I called the squad room at the police department and asked for the duty officer. I gave him my name (which he did not) and described the situation with my friend.
The officer asked me where this had occurred and I told him.
"Well, you see, we have reported gang activity in those areas."
"On Plumtree Road?"
"Yes." Of course I had to wonder if my friend had been in an area without gang activity, if he would have been stopped because he looked out of place!
I told the officer my friend had asked me if he had the right to refuse to show the contents of his backpack.
"I told him that he did have that right, but that if he refused, the officer might very well find some other reason to arrest him."
He didn't contradict me. "If the kid's got nothing to hide, why not let the officer look?" he said.
Well, lots of people would agree with that statement. We do have a gang problem in Springfield, as the recent murder of Mario Hornsby Jr. reveals so clearly. Lots of people would say, Who cares how police officers act, Who cares if every young person is searched on sight? Of course the folks saying that are not usually the ones being stopped.
We have a new police commissioner, William Fitchet, the promise of 50 more police officers, and the re-establishment of the anti-gang task force. But one thing that hasn't changed-- and in fact, has gotten worse-- is the lack of oversight of the Springfield Police Department.
Once upon a time, we had a police chief, not commissioner, and we had an appointed police commission with a variety of duties including hearing civilian complaints against the police. This commission had some binding powers, although they very rarely found against a police officer.
When Edward Flynn was hired to replace Police Chief Paula Meara, one of his conditions was that he be commissioner-- the only commissioner. The existing police commission was disbanded. Flynn got then-Mayor Ryan to hire a firm to make recommendations about civilian oversight of the police. The firm's name escapes me now, but as I recall, their recommendation was not what was established under Flynn. We now have a nine member "Community Complaint Review Board."
This Review Board has met exactly twice since being established. So far, it has not reviewed a single complaint. (This doesn't mean there haven't been any, just that we know less about it than ever before.) Not only that, all the Review Board has the power to do is review decisions already made by Commissioner Fitchet-- they can't hear from complainants, witnesses or officers directly. And even if they decided Fitchet's decision was wrong, they have absolutely no power to change his decision.
The current process lacks transparency and accountability. It is under these circumstances that we are likely to find complainants turning to civil lawsuits, being awarded sums of money that can't be disclosed to the public.
But the situation is unlikely to change unless that's what the public wants.
Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times