Ignoring City Council’s Calls For A Delay, Springfield Mayor Picks Next Police Commissioner

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has announced his choice of Deputy Chief John Barbieri to be the city’s next police commissioner. The move culminates what has been a heated dispute between the mayor and city council over how the department will be run.

Some councilors and community leaders had called on Mayor Sarno to conduct a nation search for police commissioner. But at a press conference Wednesday, Sarno said the interviews he had with three deputy chiefs bore out that there was talent within Springfield’s ranks to replace current commissioner William Fitchett, who is retiring at the end of May.

Sarno called Fitchett a consummate police professional, saying incoming commissioner John Barbieri will have big shoes to fill. But he called the 26-year veteran of the department a progressive and innovative leader that will move the force into a new era of policing.

“His command presence is more than evident,” Sarno says. “But more importantly his empathy to understand the good and bad of the human spirit has led him to diffuse situations in a mutually less confrontational way.”

That’s a key talking point for a city that’s long experienced tensions between residents and police, including over alleged brutality.

Native son

Barbieri, who went to high school and college in Springfield, says he is humbled and honored to be appointed commissioner. He says he will work to earn the trust and respect of both his colleagues and the public. The key to his vision of policing, he says, is greater collaboration to tackle conditions that contribute to crime.

“You can’t arrest your way out of a problem,” Barbieri says. “We need the residents to stay informed and inform us and work with us. We need businesses, not-profit agencies and semi-public agencies to change the conditions that foster crime.”

Barbieri is earning high praise from at least one community leader. Jose Claudio, head of the New North Citizen’s Council, says he’s been impressed with Barbieri’s work over the years in the city’s north end.

“I know him since he was a police officer working with gangs, and he knows the inside and out of that police department,” Caludio says. “And he also is a community guy, he loves the city.”

Preemptive Appointment

Barbieri’s appointment effectively preempts action by the City Council later this week on a proposal to dissolve the police commissioner’s position and return hiring and firing authority to a five-member commission. The ordinance’s supporters claim the current police review board has no real authority to discipline officers.

Councilors had asked Sarno to delay making an appointment until it completed deliberations on the proposal. But Sarno defended making the selection now, and denied he was thumbing his nose at the council.

“I had a timeline,” Sarno says. “I followed my timeline. And this is the process under the authority of the mayor of the city of Springfield. So, no.”

‘Not a great sign of collaboration’

And Sarno also called on councilors to work together with him and the new commissioner to move the city forward. But councilor Tim Allen, who supports the police commission ordinance, says the mayor’s announcement suggests otherwise.

“By virtue of the fact that we passed that resolution in asking him to not do what he just did, I’d have to say that there’s no sign of…there’s not a great sign of collaboration,” Allen says.

However, fellow councilor Tom Ashe says he’s thrilled by Barbieri’s appointment. Ashe, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, says he believes the current review board has been effective in addressing the public’s concerns about police conduct.

“The idea that the public has an opportunity to weigh in is already in place with this existing board,” Ashe says. “And with the mayor’s announcement today of a police commissioner and that transition, my hope is that we can get on with the work of the city and put this issue to rest.”

And for now, that seems to be the case. City Council President Michael Fenton has canceled Friday’s special meeting to vote on the police commission ordinance. But, in a statement, he says the council will continue working to revive the commission with an amended goal of making the proposal effective at the end of Barbieri’s contract.