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Springfield’s acting police commissioner seeks to regain public trust

Springfield’s acting police commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood, says her top priorities are reforming the department’s internal discipline process, equipping all officers with body-worn cameras by the fall, and trying to resolve two cases she believes have done the most damage to the department’s reputation. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/for The Boston Globe

SPRINGFIELD — Cheryl Clapprood’s ascension in February to acting commissioner of the Springfield Police Department didn’t come with the benefit of a clean slate.

She took charge of the department of 473 officers after Commissioner John Barbieri retired unexpectedly. The Department of Justice had launched an investigation last year into whether the narcotics unit routinely used excessive force and violated people’s civil rights, and several officers were on unpaid leave because of criminal charges in state and federal courts.

But the negative headlines didn’t let up after Clapprood took over.

In March, 14 current and former officers were indicted on charges arising from a 2015 altercation outside Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant during which prosecutors allege four men were beaten.

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Last month, a school resource officer was put on leave following a physical confrontation with a middle-school student. Also, a captain is being investigated over an off-duty incident on April 20 in a Walmart parking lot, police said. Clapprood immediately suspended both officers without pay for five days.

In an interview last month, Clapprood, 60, said she is clear-eyed about leading the police force in the state’s third-largest city.

“We’re trying to regain the confidence of the public,” said Clapprood, who began as a police cadet in 1979. “We’ve had a couple incidents that have knocked us down and been played over and over again in the press. It’s been weighing on us. We’ve had agencies come in here and investigate and prod and poke into everything from personnel files to arrest reports to excessive use of force.”

Topping Clapprood’s priorities are reforming the internal discipline process, equipping all officers with body-worn cameras by the fall, and trying to resolve two cases she believes have done the most damage to the department’s reputation.

Those cases are the fight outside Nathan Bill’s and the federal indictment of a current and former officer accused of using unreasonable force against two Latino boys in 2016.

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“When I got the acting commissioner’s job, I knew I could not change the two investigations,” Clapprood said. “I promised the women and men of the department here that I would not let it happen again.”

But both cases are expected to hang over the department while court proceedings unfold. Disciplinary hearings haven’t been scheduled for the accused officers, Clapprood said, because the department doesn’t have the prosecution’s evidence.

The cases were investigated by outside agencies that have so far declined to provide evidence to Springfield police, she said. The indicted officers have been suspended without pay and pleaded not guilty, but Clapprood said she can’t take further action until the criminal cases end.

“The public doesn’t understand the waiting game, and I don’t blame them because sometimes I don’t understand it either,” Clapprood said. “We can’t make people incriminate themselves and, if they take the Fifth with the internal investigation, we have to wait sometimes for the criminal proceedings to come through.”

The US attorney’s office, which investigated the excessive force matter, and the state attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the Nathan Bill’s case, said evidence isn’t shared with outside parties during pending court cases.

A federal grand jury last October indicted Officer Gregg Bigda and former officer Steven M. Vigneault, accusing them of using excessive force against two of three boys taken into custody for allegedly stealing an undercover police SUV. Bigda was also charged with filing a false police report and conducting illegal interrogations of two of the boys, one of whom was allegedly beaten by Vigneault.

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In 2016, Bigda agreed to a 60-day suspension after video surfaced of the interrogations, but the excessive force allegation only became public last year.

In the Nathan Bill’s case, five officers are accused of participating in the attack. A sixth officer, Jose Diaz, is accused of taking part in the beating and engaging in a coverup.

Eight other current and former officers are charged with lying about what happened.

On Thursday, one of those officers and one of his colleagues were acquitted of aggravated rape following a bench trial in an unrelated case, court records show. The officers haven’t returned to active duty, said Ryan Walsh, a police spokesman.

Officer Joshua Figueroa is on administrative leave with pay, Walsh said. Officer Derrick Gentry-Mitchell is on unpaid leave because he’s under indictment for allegedly participating in the Nathan Bill’s coverup, Walsh said. He has pleaded not guilty.

In yet another case, an administrative hearing was held that same day for Officer Daniel J. Cintron, 29, but he didn’t attend, Walsh said. Clapprood wants him fired. He goes on trial next month on child rape charges and faces a separate case for unarmed robbery.

“Cintron is so egregious I think it shocks the public conscience,” Clapprood said.

In the meantime, Clapprood said she is implementing recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, which reviewed the department’s discipline procedures.

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The commander of the Internal Investigation Unit now reports directly to her and she is assigning officers to audit the group’s work.

She said she wants a computer system to track internal complaints and give early notice about potential problems with officers, and supports a proposal to grant subpoena powers to the civilian panel that conducts police disciplinary hearings.

Some city councilors say that that panel isn’t working. They want to change the department’s leadership structure and name a civilian police commission with hiring and firing power to supervise the leader of the force. Clapprood reports to Mayor Domenic J. Sarno.

Clapprood’s rise has required her to revisit a dark period. In 1989, she was accused of kicking a man in the groin while off duty and filing a false report about what happened. A judge acquitted her of assault, but convicted her of filing the false report, a misdemeanor.

Clapprood said she sought a new trial, but prosecutors opted not to proceed. In March, she issued a public statement about the incident.

She admitted she filed a false report by writing that the incident started when a man backed into a colleague’s pickup truck. In fact, it was her undercover vehicle that was struck. Off-duty use of undercover vehicles violated department rules.

“I didn’t want to say the undercover car got hit because I didn’t want to get thrown out of the [crime prevention] bureau,” Clapprood told The Boston Globe. “I had pretty much admitted to the false report. There’s no defense for that.”

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She said she learned from her mistake and ascended the ranks over 30 years.

But some community leaders want a national search for a new police commissioner.

Bishop Talbert Swan II, who leads the NAACP’s Springfield chapter, said Clapprood’s history worries him.

“Any officer who lies on a police report concerns me,” said Swan, who hosted Clapprood at an NAACP meeting in March.

“We need someone new — someone from outside the department, someone who can have no axes to grind, no favors to reward, no favorite people that they have to take care of, who can come in and clean house,” he said.

Sarno said he supports Clapprood and hasn’t decided whether to launch a national search.

“She really loves what she does, and she loves the interaction with the people and that’s important to me, especially with our youth,” Sarno said.

Officer Joseph Gentile, president of the union that represents about 380 Springfield patrol officers, said the members believe Clapprood has started strong.

If she’s successful, Clapprood said, the department will be “an organization with great pride and integrity.”

“We will have the public trust and we will be community oriented,” she said.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com.