A Massachusetts city that’s short on cops — due in part to COVID-19 — is putting five suspended officers charged with an alleged cover-up back to work.
The police chief of Springfield, a city of 155,000, said in a statement to local media that the five officers will return to the force pending the outcome of their criminal case, which stems from an alleged 2015 bar assault involving four black men and several off-duty officers. (That case has also been put on hold, thanks again to the coronavirus pandemic.)
During the incident, an off-duty officer thought one of the black men had whistled at his girlfriend — the man was actually trying to get the bartender’s attention, according to a civil rights lawsuit — but rebuffed the man when he attempted to buy the officer a drink to clear up the misunderstanding. The four men alleged they were later attacked by a group of white men, including off-duty officers and a bar owner, according to the New York Times. (That lawsuit was settled for $885,000 last year.)
In all, 13 current and former Springfield officers were indicted last year in connection to the fight; the five set to return to work starting Sunday were on-duty during the altercation and not charged with assault, but were still accused of covering up their colleagues’ actions and have been on unpaid leave for more than a year. They will not be offered back pay once they return, said Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood, who was sworn in last October.
“Now is the time to bring some of the officers who were not involved in the original altercation, who are in need of work, back to the department pending the outcome of their criminal case,” Clapprood said in a statement, noting that her department was short of officers before the pandemic, and is dealing with further staffing shortages amid sickness and retirement. So far, 15 of the department’s officers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to MassLive, while 18 to 20 officers have been off work due to isolation or sickness. There are approximately 460 sworn officers on the force, according to the Globe.
“These officers have been suspended without pay for more than a year. Their cases have been continued again, possibly not resuming until 2021. Bringing back these five officers at this time is the right thing to do,” Clapprood continued.
The returning officers are Shavonne Lewis, Darren Nguyen, Derrick Gentry-Mitchell, James D’Amour, and John Wajdula, according to the Globe. Springfield’s mayor, Domenic Sarno, is also supportive of returning them to the force.
“Again, we’re in unprecedented times with ‘all hands on deck’ needed to continue to keep all our residents and business community safe and sound,” Sarno said in a statement to MassLive.
However, local City Council President Justin Hurst noted the department already has staffing help, via state police and the National Guard. Reinstating the accused officers seems like the wrong move, he told MassLive.
“They pose a risk to our residents as well as their colleagues and could subject the city to a myriad of lawsuits and cases being thrown out if these officers are ultimately convicted,” Hurst said.
Cover: In this Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 photo, Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood addresses councilors’ concerns about government use of facial recognition technology in surveillance cameras during a meeting in Springfield, Mass.(AP Photo/Matt O’Brien)