SPRINGFIELD — The Police Department will once be working alongside federal agents in an anti-gang task force, a move seen as a thawing of relations left frosty by four years of federal investigations into police misconduct and corruption by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood acknowledges the perception that appointing a Springfield officer to serve on the FBI’s Western Massachusetts Gang Task force must indicate a truce of some kind between the feds and city police. But, she says, perception is not necessarily based in reality.
“We never left the task force because of hard feelings,” she told The Republican in an interview this week. “We pulled everyone off the task forces because of manpower.”
Clapprood pulled officers from the various task forces in January when the department had a number of vacancies due to retirements. Those officers were reassigned to the department’s investigatory bureaus.
By late March when the first cases of COVID-19 In March emerged in the city, the Police Department was hit with critical shortages because of officers testing positive. The task force officers who had been assigned to the bureaus were reassigned to uniform patrols.
The moves were needed to plug gaps in daily coverage, according to the commissioner.
“There were no hard feelings,” she reiterated.
With COVID-19 making a resurgence in the city, Clapprood notes she may be forced to step back from the task force again if the department finds itself with a critical shortage of officers.
Pulling out of the Gang Task Force meant the region’s largest city and the hub of gang- and drug-related crime was without representation on the federal-local partnership designed to go after both gangs and drugs.
It has been suggested that city dropped out because of lingering bitterness by Springfield officers who were unwilling to serve alongside federal agents who were at that same time investigating the department in a number of cases involving abuse of power and civil rights violations. Federal agents had been investigating Springfield police for allegations of civil rights violations since 2016.
So, when the Mayor Domenic J. Sarno’s office on Nov. 12 issued a press statement announcing the appointment of an officer to the Gang Task Force, and including prepared statements from not only Clapprood and Sarno, but also Daniel A. Bonavolonta, head of the FBI’s Boston office, and Andrew E. Lelling, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, it was viewed as perhaps a sort of detente between the feds and local law enforcement.
“It’s one team and one fight,” said Bonavolonta.
“I thank the Springfield Police Department for rejoining the FBI’s Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force,” said Lelling.
It was Lelling’s office that in July issued a scathing report that found Springfield’s Narcotics Bureau routinely engaged in a pattern of using excessive force during drug arrests.
Lelling himself at that time cited the department for “chronic issues” involving use of force, poor record keeping and “repeated failures to impose discipline for officer misconduct.”
Clapprood says the report’s findings are not a point of contention. The department is enacting many recommendations outlined in it, she notes.
“We are living with the DOJ report, and we’re working on their recommendations,” she said.
She said she is aware of the perception circulating that Springfield vacated its seats on the federal task forces because of lingering animosity between the city officers and federal agents. “The perception is that we pulled them out because of hard feelings,” she said. “We want to reassure the public that that is not the case.”
Still, perceptions tend to die hard.
Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi lauded Springfield for rejoining the task force and said having the region’s largest city represented can only be viewed as a positive thing. The Sheriff’s Department is a member of the Gang Task Force.
“Getting Springfield back to the table is fantastic. Springfield has tremendous assets and resources,” he said.
He credited Clapprood and Sarno for “putting aside prior instances of being on different sides for incidents that you are aware of.”
Clapprood herself in an interview last month acknowledged that, while manpower shortages played a part, there were some lingering hard feelings between the locals and the feds that needed sorting out.
“It does us no good to hold a grudge and hard feelings, even though you really want to,” she said at the time.
This week, Clapprood said she wants Springfield officers to participate with the various federal and regional task forces that operate in Hampden County.
In addition to the Gang Task Force, the department assigns officers to federal task forces operated by the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and two Hampden County Task Forces operated by District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.
Task forces are effective and efficient with both money and personnel, she said.
“But my biggest priority is to provide the city of Springfield with cars that can respond to 911 calls,” she said.
Pulling people from specialty assignments to plug gaps in uniform patrols is the equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul, she said. When the coronavirus hit, it was a necessary move.
“It’s a balancing act,” she said.
Resurgence of COVID-19 in the city and within the department may force her to step away from it one more time.
Twenty-five officers are out on leave after testing positive for the coronavirus, and another 15 are out of work while they await test results, she said. That accounts for about 8% of the total patrol and supervisory ranks.
“It could be a horror show,” she said.
The decision to restaff the gang task force followed her participation in Lelling’s round-table discussion on an increase in gun violence in cities.
Clapprood said that in discussions with Lelling, she came to see that rejoining the task force would benefit her department’s focus on going after unlawful guns and armed criminals on the city streets.
Since January, her officers have seized more than 160 unlawful and illegal firearms.
Clapprood said members of her department are growing frustrated with officers making gun arrests and then having the district courts setting low bails that allow suspects to be released from custody. This has been a continual theme with Clapprood and Sarno over the last several months, as suspects in drug or gun cases have been released from custody and gone on to be arrested on new charges.
Rejoining the Gang Task Force creates the possibility of armed suspects facing federal charges — and the federal courts tend to be more strict in terms of bail and sentencing than the state courts, she said.
“Particularly with gun crimes,” she said. “They tend to do more time.”
The Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force is among 160 such units run by the nationwide and one of four in Massachusetts. The other two are in Boston and the North Shore and Southeastern Massachusetts.
The Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force brings different agencies together for “sustained, proactive (and) coordinated investigations” into drug activity and firearms violations, said Kristen M. Setera, spokeswoman for the Boston Division of the FBI.
“It’s a vehicle through which our law enforcement partners at the federal, state, and local level work together to collaboratively address the violent crime plaguing our communities,” she said.
Members include the Berkshire and Hampden sheriff’s departments, the state police, and the local police departments of Holyoke, Chicopee, Easthampton, West Springfield and now Springfield.
Cocchi, and Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti and Chicopee Police Chief William Jebb each said that they consider the regional task force invaluable when it comes to targeting gang and drug activity, particularly when it crosses city and town lines.
Cocchi said its main function is “to fracture, disrupt, identify and arrest any gang activity” anywhere in Western Massachusetts.
“They are very busy and it is dangerous work,” he said.
Alberti calls it a “force multiplier” for local police departments.
“I can call up the task force and they come in with a dozen people,” he said. “And it doesn’t cost me anything.”
Easthampton has one officer assigned part time to the task force, and the city pays his entire salary. But, Alberti said if Easthampton develops information about illegal activities that fall under the task force’s purview, calling it in means additional support and resources — and the feds will pick up the cost, not the local police. He added, “From my perspective, why would anyone not want that?”
Easthampton, a city of 16,000, borders Holyoke — with more than twice the population. He called Holyoke a “source city” for much of the drugs coming into Easthampton.
Easthampton does not have a gang problem, he said, but it has a narcotics and opioid problem. “It’s definitely leaking into Easthampton from Holyoke — and it is mostly gang driven,” he said.
Jebb said he also has one officer assigned part-time, and the officer spends much of his time investigating narcotics activity in Chicopee, but many cases involve multiple jurisdications.
“I don’t think I’m tipping our hand here, but you could have a gang-banger living in Chicopee and going to Springfield to deal,” he said.
The idea of a task force is to bring different agencies together and “open up the lines of communication,” he said.
Cocchi said the sheriff’s department has been a part of the task force for more than 20 years, and his staff regularly provides intelligence to the task force about gang members housed in the Hampden County House of Correction.
When it started, the focus was on the national gangs that were establishing in the area, such as the Latin Kings and La Familia.
In recent years, it has also focused on the smaller gangs in the Springfield area that operate at the neighborhood level, and Cocchi said those gangs can be as dangerous as national gangs.
Cocchi said can only be seen as a good thing that Springfield is back with the Task Force.
The city’s largest city is also a major source of much of the area’s drug and gang activity. While the task force was effective without Springfield, it can only be viewed as more effective with Springfield, he said.
“Having them back is a message of public safety at its best,” he said.
Published at Sun, 22 Nov 2020 00:00:00 +0000