Journey To Top For Acting Police Boss In Springfield, Mass., Not Without Controversy

Mar 21, 2019

A month ago, Springfield, Massachusetts, got a new leader of the police department. 

Acting Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said she wants more transparency and trust between the department and the community amid a number of police scandals.

But this week, Clapprood's own record with honesty has faced scrutiny in a report on MassLive.

Dan Glaun, MassLive: So Cheryl Clapprood has been with the department for about 40 years. For the last 30 of those years, [she's] been a very — as far as public controversy goes — a clean figure. She has a reputation for doing community police work. She's risen through the ranks. She was one of the first woman deputy chiefs in the department when she was appointed back in 2017 to that role.

But when she became commissioner, she was taking over a department that was in some pretty serious flux. Commissioner John Barbieri, who had long had the support of Mayor Sarno, retired very abruptly, seemingly having lost [Sarno's support] amid a DOJ investigation. Multiple officers getting charged. Then a few other things that we uncovered recently that involved video footage that didn't quite match up with officers' arrest reports.

And so she takes over and says, "I'm going to clean all this up. Dishonesty is not going to be tolerated and I'm going to hold everyone accountable." And she had this incident in her past from 1989, from 30 years ago, where she was actually convicted of filing a false report.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Walk me through how you unearthed this story.

The incident itself was something that for people familiar with the police department or who worked there was always known. It's something that had never seemed particularly relevant.

But you know, when you have a police commissioner who comes into office specifically to address scandals of dishonesty, and she has this in her record, our position was the public should know about that. And she should both have the opportunity and the obligation to explain what she did, and how she's grown from there. And so that's why we decided to do the story.

And did she explain, or did she not talk with you about this?

She did eventually. We had a lengthy interview with her, with members of the Republican editorial board.

And basically, you know, what she said is, this happened 30 years ago. She was under a lot of pressure and facing some hostility because she was, you know, [an] upwardly mobile woman in the department in the 1980s, which is not the easiest thing to be. And she described it as a screwup of youthful naivete and just a mistake that she has worked to rectify and that she, in fact, has had cleared from her record through legal proceedings.

But what we're actually talking about is an internal investigation, there was a demotion, suspension, there was arbitration. What are the highlights of that?

So basically what happened was in 1989, you know, she gets off of work for a night shift and drives a police car to a bar. And unmarked cars are only supposed to be used for department business. She drives it to a bar to go meet with her friends. Another  driver just happens to crash into it after she parks, which leads to this long sort of off-duty wild police chase through the streets of Springfield, where she and another officer, off duty, you know, arrest these guys.

Somewhere in this tussle, one of the men ends up with a severe traumatic injury to his groin that requires surgery and it becomes this this whole mess. And when she reports on the arrest, she claims that she was just driving by, and that it was another car that was struck and not hers, and that she just responded. Which wasn't true, and that that was what she got convicted of, was essentially writing a report that hid that she was using an undercover car to travel to the scene.

And this spawns this whole mess of recriminations. She gets suspended and demoted. She gets that discipline overturned because the board of police commissioners messed up the procedure and didn't notify her of the charges. She gets indicted for assault and battery and civil rights violations, gets cleared of those at a trial, but is convicted of filing a false report.

And the case is sealed?

So she spends, on and off, you know, the next 20 years trying to strike this from her record. In 1998, we obtained a letter showing that she sought a pardon from the governor. The police chief at the time recommended that that pardon not be granted. And it wasn't.

And then in 2013, some folks and backers of hers, get her to work with this attorney to petition for a new trial from the then-district attorney, Mark Mastroianni, saying that, you know, her lawyer at the time had not warned her that her pension could be at jeopardy, didn't seek a resolution that could preserve that for her. And in a sense, this is reasonable in that this case ended with her paying a $675 fine and could end up with her at age 65, losing hundreds of thousands or over a million dollars. And Mastroianni says that makes sense, that's fine, we're going to drop the charge.

And it's effectively cleared from a record and she seals the case. But at no point does she contest that she did not write the false report. But now it's effectively been rendered invisible in the justice system.

With her pledge of accountability, she was talking about this with the editorial board as a as a teachable moment, using it as an example of of transparency?

Yeah. So she submitted a statement after we start working on the story, in where she says, this is something that happened when I was young, that gave me perspective on both honesty has an officer, and the difficulties that officers can face when they're involved in these situations.

In fairness, her record so far in the short time she's been commissioner, she has been pretty aggressive about, you know, looking at these old incidents and taking sort of more decisive action than we've seen recently. And she's saying that she's not going to tolerate these sort of things to  just drag on endlessly — which has been a really both problem with morale in the department and for these alleged victims. And she wants to get rid of that. You know, once scandals happen, to address them and to move on, at least that's what she was saying.