Friday, February 5, 2010

Mayor Sarno stumbles with the new city council, the public and the police

When Ward Four City Councilor E. Henry Twiggs put out the call last week that his committee would be discussing proposals for a new Civilian  Police Review Board, I'm sure he had no idea that Mayor Domenic Sarno would release his own proposal by executive order the day before the meeting.  For some strange reason, the city council actually thought it would have some input into the proposal, given that nine police officers in two separate incidents are now under investigation and at least some councilor's phone have been quite busy with calls from constituents.

But the meeting still took place last night in Room 220, and members of the Civil Rights and Race Relations Committee-- E. Henry Twiggs, John Lysak and Keith Wright-- were joined by Melvin Edwards, Katari Walsh, Michael Fenton, Thomas Ashe, Zaida Luna and Timothy Rooke!  With James Ferrera and Tim Allen in the audience, the only city councilors who weren't in attendence were Clodo Concepcion and and Jose Tosado.

On one side of the room sat members of the Springfield Police Department.  On the other side sat about 40 community members.

The first part of the meeting was given over to a presentation by City Solicitor Edward Pikula, who had completed the thankless task of coming up with the civilian police commission plan.  He was closely questioned by council members about some fairly complicated elements that shaped the plan-- Police Commissioner Fitchet's contract, civil service requirements, charter change and the police union's contract.  Councilor Twiggs made it clear he was not happy that council members were not consulted in the drafting of the proposal.  Then the meeting was turned over to speakers.

Police Union President Joseph Gentile spoke first, and said that the union did not support Mayor Sarno's new civilian police commission.  He said he wanted very much to see race relations in between the police and the community improve, and thought that community policing, which we no longer have, would do it.  He reminded us that the original police commission, which was disbanded as a condition of Commissioner Edward Flynn's hire, had the power to seek funding, develop program, hire, fire, commend and discipline as well as other powers.  Gentile's solution was something close to the original commission.)

(I'm going to stop here for a moment to .remember Ed Flynn as one of the most arrogant and incompetent persons I've ever met.  He wanted to be Commissioner, not Chief; he wanted all the powers of the Police Commission, and he left for a job in Milwaukee only 19 months into a five year contract. In trying to his leaving, he said, "I am two things ... and they're both real. I am an idealist about this job, and I am ambitious. The gap between the two gets filled with guilt," said Flynn, a well-traveled, pedigreed executive in blue, whose presence in Springfield has been unwelcome by many among the rank-and-file of the department."  Republican.   Some of the problems we're facing right now belong on his shoulders.)

Most of the people who spoke next talked about their intense disappointment  in being excluded from the process of determining the form pf police oversight; some, such as Arise for Social Justice and Rev. Talbert Swan, had submitted written suggestions. Others spoke about the mistrust in the community and the need to make sure that allegations of police brutality were thoroughly investigated by a commission with real powers, lacking in Sarno's commiission. 

I spoke near the end.  The point I wanted to make is that people who voted for ward representation in Springfield did so with the expectation that their councilors would be able to participate in decisions that affected their neighborhoods.  But first, I mentioned that I had been arrested in that very room about five years before at a city auction of tax title property, and charged with disturbing the peace, which was true, seeing as I was speaking out of turn, and with assault and battery on a police officer, completely untrue, and that the charges had been dropped when the officer failed to appear in court..  At that point I inclined myself toward the police officers, and said, ruefully, "You know, guys, that's the kind of thing-- putting charges on people they don't deserve-- that breeds cynicism and mistrust and that has to stop."

After I sat down, I glanced over to the officers' side of the room. It happened so quickly that at first I wasn't sure what I saw, but what I saw was an officer with his hand in the shape of a gun, held low to his lap, and pointed directly at me.

How the issues of police management and accountability in this city will be resolved, I don't know, but it's clearly not over yet.  Councilor Ferrera will be introducing his own version of a police commission on Monday night, which Councilor Twiggs has already said he doesn't support, but as Ferrera said to me this morning, at least the council will have the opportunity to debate, amend, accept or reject his proposal, an opportunity they were denied with Sarno's executive order.   And although no councilor at the meeting overtly expressed anger at Mayor Sarno (Ed Pikula was the stand-in for that), relations certainly haven't been improved.  It was only this January 20 that City Council President Jose Tosado called the lack of communication between the mayor and city council "institutionalized disfunction."  Ward representation can't be effective if the council continues to be shut out of the government.

Drawing from Shell's Daily Drawing.

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