Deputy Chief Lawrence Akers addresses a Feb 28 Special City Council Meeting regarding his planned ascension to Police Superintendent.
Reminder Publishing Photo by Bill Zito

SPRINGFIELD — Deputy Police Chief Lawrence Akers remains on track to become the city’s next police superintendent following the City Council meeting on Feb. 26 and 27, which entailed comprehensive discussions about what Akers’ position and authority over officer hiring, firing and discipline will be and if his title will remain as superintendent or change to that of chief.

The 38-year veteran of the department was selected in January by Mayor Domenic Sarno to succeed retiring Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood, who is expected to leave in April. Akers will also become the first Black man to head the department.

The special council session was assembled to address and vote on three items related to Akers’ ascent to the position. The first concerned Akers reaching the mandatory state retirement of 65; he reaches that age in December.

In a subcommittee meeting on Feb. 26, Sarno read in part from a memorandum dispatched by Susana Baltazar, executive director of the Springfield Retirement Board. The memo indicated that Akers would continue paying into the retirement system beyond the age of 65, while remaining in city employment. Clapprood will turn 65 after her retirement date becomes effective.

In the same subcommittee meeting, Sarno addressed concerns about department diversity and the continuing roles and authority of the superintendent and the civilian oversight duties of the Board of Police Commissioners and who retains the responsibility over hiring, firing, promotion, discipline and dismissal.

“What we have now currently takes the politics out of the Police Department when it comes to hiring,” Sarno said.

Sarno also made note of the makeup of the current academy class which comprises 24 minority hires out of 25 positions and a large contingent of female applicants.

“Our Police Department reflects our community, the demographics of our community,” he said.

Sarno also briefly referenced a social media post attributed to state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez (D-Springfield) that accused the mayor and City Council of trying to remove power and transparency from the people, calling it “dirty politics” by not supporting an independent body to work with the superintendent on hiring, promotion and the disciplinary process.

Sarno called it “a false narrative”.

Akers, speaking before the subcommittee, offered his perspective on the hiring and promotion process within the department and how it has developed during his career.

“I’m someone who was fortunate enough to have a father that was on this job and I got to spend a year and a half with him on this job and he taught me a lot of things about the job,” he said. “I used to ask him why he never went for promotions and he straight out told me, ‘Because they wouldn’t give me a job because I didn’t look right, I didn’t have the last name, the proper last name,’ and that stuck with me for a long time,” he said.

In fact, Akers said, it tempered his viewpoint on advancement within the department.

“That fed into why for many years, I didn’t take the promotional exams, I didn’t take the promotional exams until I had almost 25 years on the job.”

Pushing back on what had been in the past, Akers indicated his plan to work with the Board of Commissioners as they continue to work with disciplinary issues but he expected to have every piece of authority that his predecessors had.

“I am not going to be the type of superintendent that’s going to go and go right back to the same things that I suffered from, and my father suffered from and many other people suffered from if I’m in that position.”

In the special council session that followed, Akers addressed a chamber filled with community members and dozens of police officers while reiterating the comments made and position he presented earlier.

“It doesn’t make a difference what you look like, what race you are, what social status you hold,” he said. “I’ll run this department fair and honestly and I can understand people’s concern about the past, but I’m not the past, I’m the present.”

Councilors in the meeting offered praise for Akers while discussing the potential authorities and oversights held by the superintendent position and the Board of Commissioners.

Councilors Zaida Govan and Tracye Whitfield also both spoke in favor of changing Akers title from superintendent to chief but retreated from that position following input from City Solicitor John Payne, who explained to the council that any such change could create conflict within civil service rules and the current federal consent decree.

An 11-2 vote in favor of updated language retaining authority for both the superintendent and the board passed ahead of the closure of the meeting.

A brief reconvening on Feb. 27 ended with approval by the council on the updated language and approving the petition allowing Akers to serve past the state retirement age and collect pension benefits past the age of 65 which will still require state Legislature approval.

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