SPRINGFIELD — After years of being dogged by bad press over its police department, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno says a recent U.S. Department of Justice report castigating the narcotics unit offers the city a “golden opportunity” to accelerate police reforms.
Sarno on Thursday announced he retained retired Judge Roderick Ireland, a city native and former Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, to assess the police department’s strengths and weaknesses and guide them toward improvements in policy and community relations.
“The big thing here — he knows and loves this city. He’s always told me: ‘Mayor, anything I can do to help you, just let me know.’ So I picked up the phone and gave him a call and we spoke,” Sarno said during an interview on Thursday.
While other public and private entities — including Gov. Charlie Baker’s office and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield — have retained retired judges and former prosecutors for independent reviews of sensitive and controversial issues, this is the city’s first foray into such an analysis.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Massachusetts in July released a report after a two-year investigation into the Springfield Police Department’s narcotics unit, concluding detectives routinely used excessive force and retrofitted police reports to justify their actions, among other failings.
While members of the department refuted the accuracy of the analysis — which provided a litany of summaries of arrests the DOJ believed were problematic — Sarno, Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood and other city officials pledged reforms in its wake.
For his part, Sarno called the report “disturbing and disappointing.” City officials pointed out that many reforms recommended in the DOJ analysis — the only one of its kind under the Trump administration — were already underway.
Ireland, who retired in 2014 and whose name adorns the former Hall of Justice on State Street, was previously tapped to perform a review of a controversial arrest by Cambridge police of a Black Harvard student in 2018. He also served as an unpaid adviser to House Speaker Robert DeLeo on criminal justice reforms while a debate was raging on Beacon Hill.
Ireland was appointed by former Gov. Deval L. Patrick as the first Black justice to the state’s highest court, then later as its chief justice.
The Republican has requested a copy of Ireland’s contract. City Solicitor Edward Pikula said he will provide the newspaper with the contract when all signatures are secured on Friday. Pikula confirmed that Ireland will be paid, but declined to release more details until the ink was dry.
Ireland declined to comment further on the arrangement with the city, but said in a prepared statement earlier Thursday he was honored to be chosen by Sarno as special counsel.
“Police reform is a critically important topic, not only in Springfield, but also nationally, and I look forward to sharing my best thinking with him, based on many years as a public defender, lawyer, judge, and student of the law. The citizens of Springfield deserve a law enforcement agency which they can trust, and which follows the rule of law and our Constitution,” said Ireland, who holds a degree from Columbia Law School and advanced degrees from Harvard Law School and Northeastern University.
While he now lives in eastern Massachusetts, Ireland, 75, was raised in the city’s Old Hill neighborhood, attending Springfield public schools until he graduated from Classical High School.
Sarno said he was propelled to seek outside help after the DOJ report was issued.
“I want Justice Ireland to work together with my office, my law department and the police department as well as the Department of Justice,” Sarno said. “I want him to highlight what we’re doing well, and equally as important what needs to be addressed and corrected and clarified so we can do better.”
The mayor says he often feels hamstrung by the criminal justice system, and to some extent, collective bargaining skirmishes to make policy changes as quickly as he would like.
“To me, things can’t happen quickly enough, but you have to always deal with the legal aspect and the labor aspect,” Sarno said. “But here in Springfield — and nationally — no good cop wants a bad cop around them.”
The mayor on Thursday and at previous public appearances has held up the rollout of body-worn cameras, a contentious issue that held up collective bargaining negotiations between the city and its police force, as one example of a step forward.
Immediately following the release of the DOJ report, Clapprood said she will require nearly every sworn officer, including plainclothes and narcotics detectives, to wear cameras. The decision was made to expand the use of them, in part, by the report.
While other city police departments that have fallen under DOJ scrutiny find themselves subject to “consent decrees,” or federal controls that enforce particular police changes, Springfield does not appear poised for that level of ongoing scrutiny. In fact, the report includes a footnote signaling quite the opposite.
“The Department of Justice does not serve as a tribunal authorized to make factual findings and legal conclusions binding on, or admissible in, any court, and nothing in this Report should be construed as such,” the footnote reads.
Sarno and Pikula have nonetheless emphasized that the city intends to partner with the U.S. Attorney’s office and Department of Justice to improve the police department. Sarno said Ireland will be an important part of that commitment.
“I thought it was a golden opportunity right now to bring in an outside set of eyes and ears … who is well respected. And once again, he’s a Springfield guy,” the mayor said, adding that Ireland is already in the very early stages of his review.
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