Most people are familiar with the major projects underway in Springfield: the $950 million MGM casino, the $90 million renovation of Union Station, and the $95 million CRRC MA rail-car factory being built at the former Westinghouse site.
But a highly successful, multi-pronged program to improve public safety that was created by Mayor Domenic Sarno and the Springfield Police Department has gone on mostly behind the scenes and yielded remarkable results.
“We have had a 20% drop in crime since 2015,” said Police Commissioner John Barbieri.
Officials attribute the dramatic reduction to a number of factors. They include an increase in police officers (48 were added from the last academy, and in about a month another 50 will be sworn in), a highly effective C3 (community policing) program, an ongoing strategic analysis of crime by a division in the police department that has been dramatically increased, leadership classes for police officers, a new computer program on laptops in cruisers that pinpoint where recent crimes have occurred and allows police officers to read reports about them, and other measures that have made a decided difference.
Officials are proud of the recorded success, but know that changing public perception remains an ongoing challenge.
“Perception and attitude equal reality, and we are continuing to battle the negative perceptions people have toward crime and urban cities by enhancing public safety and providing increased police visibility,” Sarno said, noting that, in the past, businesses interested in moving to Springfield typically asked about public safety, but that conversation rarely occurs today.
Barbieri agreed. “The goal for the future is to create a high degree of police visibility downtown which reflects modern-day standards,” he said. “Whenever people travel to a metro area, they worry about crime, but an increase in police presence combats their fear.”
He added that public safety and economic development complement each other, and the entire police department has been reorganized.
“We’ve a made a commitment to the community in terms of accountability and responsiveness,” Barbieri noted, explaining that the department’s approach has differed from most large cities, where attempts to suppress crime are not typically linked to accountability. For example, some police departments might increase arrests or tickets for offenses such as littering, but since 99% of people are law-abiding, those tactics don’t generate cooperation or lead to an increase in information from residents about problems that haven’t yet surfaced.
“Our officers will never know the neighborhoods they work in as well as the people who live there, no matter how long they are assigned to an area,” Barbieri said, as he spoke about the difference community policing has made in establishing respect and rapport between Springfield police officers and residents.
“Crime is complex, and it takes a unified approach by nonprofits, businesses, schools, and local, state, and federal partners to deal with the issues that cause it,” he continued. “Reducing crime is not just about making arrests; it’s about arresting the right people who will not reform or seek help, as well as resolving neighborhood problems.”
They can include derelict properties, and to that end, Sarno created a Quality of Life/Ordinance Flex Squad in 2008 to deal with properties that are neglected or affect the quality of life of nearby residents. Members include the police department, building and code enforcement, the city’s law department, and the mayor’s office. The fire department and housing department also offer assistance when needed, and the collaborative approach has proven effective.
Sarno noted, as an example of success, a project that involved multiple entities to deal with the old River Inn at the corner of State and Thompson streets. It had been a troubled location for two decades before it was condemned in 2011, then purchased by DevelopSpringfield at a foreclosure auction and demolished. There are other examples of success related to the vision of creating a vibrant downtown where people feel safe and can enjoy and appreciate the Innovation District, Union Station, the Quadrangle, the MGM casino, and the businesses and eateries that already exist as well as those that will grow around them.
“But no matter how much money is spent on marketing, word of mouth is key,” Sarno said, adding that highly successful events, such as the Jazz & Roots Festival in August that attracted more than 12,000 people from all over New England and New York, are making a difference in perception and reality, which is critical because Union Station will be used by 4 million people each year and the MGM casino will bring in at least 10,000 guests on a daily basis when it opens.
For this issue, BusinessWest focuses on measures that officials in Springfield and its police department have taken to improve public safety and the overall perception of the City of Homes.
When Sarno was elected mayor in 2008, the city had significant problems and was being managed by a state Finance Control Board due to a $41 million budget deficit. But that board was dissolved in 2009, and in addition to addressing the city’s finances, Sarno took steps to improve public safety and quality of life in all of Springfield’s neighborhoods.
New lighting was installed downtown, the police presence was strengthened in the former entertainment district, which had been attracting large numbers of undesirable people, and the size of the police force was increased.
In addition, MGM made a commitment to spend $1.5 million annually for 15 years to create and maintain a public-safety district downtown due to the traffic it will bring to the city. The district runs from the south end of Mill Street to Union Station, to Riverfront Park, which is being renovated, and up to the Quadrangle.
But perhaps one of the most important changes was the establishment of C3 policing in vulnerable neighborhoods where high levels of poverty, truancy, and healthcare problems exist. Special police units have been created and put in place in four areas: Mason Square, the South End, the North End, and lower Forest Park.
Police officers in these units have formed strong bonds with families and children through a number of measures. They have walked thousands of students to school via a program called the Walking School Bus, attend school sports events and cheer students to success, participate in community events, and recently collaborated with neighborhood agencies to hold an Easter-egg hunt.
Every police academy recruit receives C3 policing and de-escalation training and volunteers on a regular basis in the community, where they mix and mingle and take part in a wide variety of activities.
Weekly meetings are held in each neighborhood that are attended by representatives from 60 agencies, including churches, local businesses, and nonprofits such as the YMCA, YWCA, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. The number of residents who attend the meetings is growing, and many provide information about issues that need to be addressed.
“The philosophy of C3 policing is carried over into our entire uniformed division,” Barbieri said, noting that all concerns expressed by residents are taken seriously.
The mayor said the city’s C-3 policing program (which was named a Difference Maker by BusinessWest in 2013) has been so successful, it is being used as a model across the country, and Barbieri has spoken about it before many audiences.
In addition, the police commissioner established a Crime Analysis Unit in 2014 that allows the police department to determine trends and patterns.
“We look at trends from the previous year and hold weekly meetings with all of our commanding officers and supervisors to go over crime that has occurred,” Barbieri said, explaining that they discuss problem properties, prolific offenders, and strategies that will be used to resolve issues. “There is a high level of accountability.”
Sarno works closely with Barbieri and gave a green light to the idea of installing a Crime View program on the laptops in every police cruiser. The technology gives officers detailed information about incidents that have taken place over the previous seven days in the area they are assigned to patrol.
“It pinpoints where the crime occurred and allows officers to read reports related to each incident, including the time of day and day of the week it took place, so they can self-deploy into the areas where they are needed the most,” Barbieri said, noting that residents can also text tips or reports anonymously about problems or concerns.
Although a police presence is not always visible in some neighborhoods, that happens for a reason, as it doesn’t make sense for officers to be limited to a very small area. For example, if a rash of housebreaks are occurring in a neighborhood, an appropriate contingent can move into that area.
However, in the near future, the police presence downtown will increase and be highly visible. Plans are in place to build a number of well-lit police kiosks and substations in the public safety district, and Union Station will have its own police office.
Call-for-service kiosks will also be installed throughout the area, containing cameras that videotape action on the street, and the C3 squads will be expanded.
“People will see blue wherever they go,” Barbieri said, noting that additional police officers assigned to the area will be hand-picked and will adopt a customer-service approach.
In addition, programs in the schools and community centers are yielding positive results: the truancy rate has been cut in half, and young people are forming relationships with police due to their participation in community events and the Walking School Bus program.
The entire police department is making strides, and is the only one in the country that provides peer-to-peer anti-corruption training without being mandated to do so by a federal consent decree. In addition, the strategic crime unit will eventually become a 24/7 operation and will provide information to officers in real time as crime is occurring.
Sarno believes that, as Springfield adds more attractions and confidence rises, there will be an increase in demand for housing downtown, and Baby Boomers who left years ago may want to return.
The $6 million renovation of the former Morgan Square complex at 15 Taylor St., located a block from Union Station, serves as a cornerstone of new residential redevelopment and potential for growth in the future. The complex has been named SilverBrick Lofts Springfield, and 25 of its one- to three-bedroom apartments, with rents ranging from $795 to $1,235, have been reserved for teachers.
Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, said another example of progress is the $40 million renovation of the Chestnut Towers complex by Related Beal. When the towers were built 40 years ago, the property was known for its luxury apartments, but the state foreclosed on the complex in 1996, and after that occurred, it became a hotspot for drugs, violence, and other crimes.
But that is another site where progress is occurring. “Related Beal plans to spend about $100,000 on each of the 489 apartment units,” said Kennedy. “A key component of its plan involves working with the police department to get rid of negative tenants and provide reassurance to the good families who live there.”
He noted that there has been a change in management, the developer is working with police to hire a new security director, and it has partnered with the city to provide better housing and improve the quality of life for new and existing residents.
In addition, Pynchon Plaza will be updated and renovated. It was built in 1976 as a gateway between downtown and the Springfield Museums and Quadrangle, and the city is going out to bid for designer services for a plan to improve it in phases.
Sarno believes confidence in public safety will grow alongside new entertainment venues and spur more investment.
“MGM put Springfield on the map, and the new CRRC MA plant and Union Station revitalization has led to meetings every week with businesses and developers who want to come to Springfield,” he said, noting that the City of Homes has an AA+ rating from Standard & Poor’s, and the last two city budgets were not only balanced, but contained reserves.
Crime — as well as the perception of it — is being reduced, and officials are proud of the work being done by the police department. “When Springfield police officers were asked to stand up to prepare the city for growth, they stood tall and embraced the community,” Barbieri said.
Sarno calls Springfield police officers “sentinels of peace” and says they are making a positive difference 24 hours a day.
“In the next five years, there will be dramatic changes in Springfield,” he said, “and we are working hand in glove with the police department to keep our city safe.”
Springfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 156,000 (2016)
Area: 33.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.66
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.07
Median Household Income: $38,398 (2015)
median family Income: $43,289 (2015)
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Medical Center; MassMutual Financial Group; Big Y; Center for Human Development; American Outdoor Brands Corp.
* Latest information available