Modernizing policing in Massachusetts’ third largest city

By Lianne Zana

The Springfield Police Department is changing the way it interacts with the community by implementing new policing innovations aimed at improving public safety.

The innovations follow a wave of calls for police reform within the department after controversial officer-involved incidents and a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice – but Springfield is not the only city revolutionizing the ways in which it operates. Law enforcement departments across the country have adopted new changes to protect civilians against police misconduct, defend officers against false accusations, and promote public health. The impact of policing failures around the country have had a direct impact on local law enforcement functions.

“Things that happen nationally get pointed back to what’s going on here,” Springfield Police Spokesperson Ryan Walsh said. “All the good work that you do takes a few steps back when a police officer in anther state and another jurisdiction does something terrible.”

Through such actions as incorporating mental health services in police response, documenting and analyzing citizens’ encounters with officers, and boosting treatment measures for illicit substance use, the Springfield Police Department has established a string of innovations that have improved both safety and quality of life in the city.

Police-worn body cameras have become a widely used oversight tool for law enforcement agencies in the last several years. In the summer of 2020, the Springfield Police Department established a policy that requires all the department’s officers to be equipped with body cameras on their chests, to document all encounters with the public. The footage is then brought back to the police department and uploaded to a cloud, where it is examined by a team of body camera analysts.

While data from the National Institute of Justice suggests the effectiveness of body-worn cameras is mixed, members of the Springfield Police Department said they have gone a long way in increasing evidence quality and reducing civilian complaints and agency liability. Body-worn cameras are just one of several changes that body camera analyst Suehaley Arce has seen in her seven years at the department.

“It’s a great opportunity for transparency,” Arce said. “Especially with police officers who are dealing with consistent complaints, the body camera gives a good lens into what really may have happened, versus what we think may have happened.”

While body cameras are often associated with crime scenes, Arce suggests that the tool can be used for a variety of reasons. “The majority of [the body camera videos that we’ve analyzed] have been car accidents; they’re pretty much for insurance agencies and insurance companies that are asking for these videos to move forward with whatever it is they have to do.”

The body cameras provide a versatile array of purposes for police investigations. Arce said that while an incident such as a shooting is straightforward to the viewer, analyzers may work more meticulously to extrapolate information related to the identities of the subjects in the video. For instance, body camera specialists may use special editing tools to clearly identify the license plate of a car involved in a traffic accident.

Springfield officers are working to combat the opioid crisis in Western Massachusetts with a life-saving tool aimed at reversing overdoses. When nasal Narcan spray was first launched for public use, its slogan was “Be the 1 Before 911.” The medication, which was approved by the FDA in 2015, works by spraying Naloxone into the nostrils of an individual experiencing a drug overdose, effectively blocking the effects of opioids, and restoring normal breathing.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50,000 people died from an opioid-involved overdose in 2019. The agency found that bystanders were present in more than one in three overdoses involving opioids. One study found that bystander Naloxone administration is associated with increased odds of recovery.

The finding demonstrates that the ability to prevent an opioid-related death is maximized when more people have Naloxone on hand. Springfield Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood said the Narcan initiative has helped the city make progress in its fight against opioids, by saving lives — but it has also improved the morale among the department.

“It’s very frustrating for an officer to go out for an overdose call, and [they’re] very limited in what [they] can do,” Clapprood said. “We’re trained as first responders, but for somebody who is having an overdose, we would wait for an ambulance. Now we have a tool that we can administer, and it usually works.”

In addition to using Narcan as a life-saving measure, it is also used as a starting point to track the progress of overdose victims. The police department is teaming up with the sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies to follow up on the people who overdosed, to see if they have received adequate help.

The superintendent is currently working to order more Narcan, as well as other medical equipment for the department, so that officers are better equipped to handle such emergencies. “We want our guys to feel like they’re making a difference when they go out there,” Clapprood said.

Much like the rise in opioid use, public health experts have seen a spike in mental health crises in recent years. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in the spring of 2019 found that 37% of U.S. high school students reported regular mental health struggles during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such studies have prompted action from law enforcement agencies to combat emergencies related to mental illness.

The Springfield Police Department has launched a new system that expands the number of Behavioral Health Network clinicians available to co-respond with officers to mental health calls from four clinicians to six. According to the police department, co-responding clinicians help by using de-escalation techniques, providing victim assistance, and connecting residents in need to critical services.

Stephanie Tonelli is the Hub and Cor coordinator for the police department’s metro unit. She acknowledged the progress the department has made in training its officers to respond to mental health emergencies and show empathy for those experiencing psychiatric episodes.

“Almost 100 percent of the officers in the metro unit are CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) trained, and now that we’re past the peak of Covid-19, that training is starting to pick back up again,” Tonelli said. In 2021, clinicians were called to respond with an officer more than 1,900 times. During those calls, behavioral health clinicians made more than 800 contacts with residents.

The Springfield Police Department has demonstrated efforts to improve policing through these new innovations. Police-worn body cameras have helped improve transparency among law enforcement and the public, as well as reduce civilian complaints. The expansion of mental health services has helped law enforcement be better equipped to handle psychiatric crises, and get individuals struggling with mental illness the help that they need immediately. The use of nasal Narcan spray has saved hundreds of lives in the city by reversing potentially deadly opioid overdoses.

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi has praised the innovative efforts of the city’s men and women in blue.

“The Springfield Police Department has done an outstanding job in continuing to promote modern-day policing techniques, and challenging people to be their best — we can always challenge people to be better at what they do,” Cocchi said.

About Lianne Zana 4 Articles
Lianne Zana is an Emerson College graduate student from Western Massachusetts. Born in Paris, France and raised in Longmeadow, Lianne has more than three years of experience in television news producing at WWLP-22News in Springfield. She attended University of Connecticut for her undergraduate studies, where she pursued a double-major in journalism and communication. Lianne plans to use the skills she's acquired at Emerson and WWLP to continue her work as a news producer in a larger market.