Springfield faith and community activist groups called for commitments from the mayor and police chief to work with them to strengthen the police oversight commission and reinstate a requirement for police officers to live in the city.
In an online public forum Tuesday hosted by the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, Mayor Jim Langfelder said he’ll meet with groups to hear ideas. He also said he’s committed to getting a residency requirement for new officers – an issue he campaigned on in 2015.
Police Chief Kenny Winslow said he supports a residency requirement as well, but was more cautious on changes to the oversight commission. He said the union has already indicated it wants to bargain on any proposals to rewrite the rules of the commission. Winslow said he didn’t want to “bargain in public” and be faced with an unfair labor practice claim.
Tyrese Thomas is co-founder of community group In Black Ink, which participated in the forum. He said the make-up of the appointed police commission is akin to a fox watching a henhouse. Several members have a background in law enforcement.
“There's a lack of representation by the folks with communities that have been most often negatively affected by the biased policing,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the two dozen complaints against officers last year is artificially low because the process to complain is “obscure and exclusionary.”
Langfelder said there are two open spots on the police commission, and he’s talked with Black Lives Matter Springfield about filling one of them. He also said anyone can send an application to be nominated for commissions via the city’s website.
He admitted there should be more information on the commission and how to submit a complaint about police officers on the website.
Winslow said his “Pledge to Professionalism” from police leadership, which outlines policies they would support, includes a willingness to have the commission review all investigations of citizen complaints, not just cases where there was no wrongdoing found and punishment given.
Winslow also emphasized that writing the rules for the commission is the job of the city council. Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Greogry and Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner recently proposed an ordinance that would broaden the scope of the commission’s work.
An organizer with the coalition expressed frustration that a requirement that officers live in the Springfield was left out of the most recent contract. Last spring, the city council approved a four-year contract that covers 2018 through 2022 after the city went into arbitration when it couldn’t reach an agreement with the police union. Residency was one of the sticking points.
“We believe that the residency requirement comes down to relationships. We believe that people who are in relationship with those that they're serving will be less biased and more just.” said Faith Coalition organizer Emma Schaefer. “If you have someone driving an hour into work every day, they aren't going to feel as connected to the community as someone who just say lives down the street.”
A residency requirement for city hires was repealed in 2000 by the city council. In the fall 2012 elections, 59% of voters supported a nonbinding referendum saying future city employees should live within city limits. Contracts signed since then with all the other unions that represent municipal employees, including most recently firefighters, have included the requirement.
Schaefer placed blame on the city for it not being included in the final contract, while the mayor said it was the responsibility of the arbitrator.
Langfelder said he still supports the idea, particularly in light of growing pension debt.
“Pensions and retirements of public employees are paid by property taxes. And 100 percent plus of our property taxes go to the pensions and the retirements of our employees,” he said.
Winslow said he doesn’t see a connection between where an officer lives and his job performance, but he has supported the residency requirement and lives in the city himself. He said the department has offered incentives for officers who live in the city. But he said he also understands the decision of some officers to live elsewhere.
The Faith Coalition, Black Lives Matter Springfield, In Black Ink and Education and Action Together plan to meet about police reforms with the mayor and police chief by the end of next month.