Mass. city councilor questions fire department's hiring of former police detective

Luke Cournoyer had been involved in a misconduct case with the police department, but Springfield's city solicitor said he met all the employment criteria


Patrick Johnson
The Republican

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A city councilor is questioning how a former police detective, involved in one of the Police Department's most damaging recent cases of misconduct allegations, is now hired as a rookie firefighter.

Councilor Justin Hurst is calling on Fire Commissioner Bernard J. Calvi and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno to explain why former detective Luke Cournoyer was hired and whether they knew of his background at the time of his appointment.

Then-Det. Luke Cournoyer appeared at an April 2017 Hampden Superior Court hearing.
Then-Det. Luke Cournoyer appeared at an April 2017 Hampden Superior Court hearing. (Photo/Don Treeger/Tribune News Service)

"I can't believe that the hiring process is so flawed that they are not even doing simple background checks before they hire people," Hurst said.

Calvi and Sarno did not respond to requests for comment.

However, city solicitor John M. Payne said Cournoyer was hired because he met all the criteria outlined by civil service and the city, including passing the state civil service examination and having never been charged with any crimes. There was no reason not to hire him, the head of the Law Department said.

Cournoyer was among six recruits to graduate in a class of 28 on Friday from the Massachusetts Fire Academy campus in Indian Orchard. Completing the 10-week training program is a requirement for being appointed a full-time firefighter.

Prior to joining the Fire Department, Cournoyer spent 12 years as a member of the Police Department. In that role, he was present with narcotics detectives Gregg Bigda and Steven Vigneault in February 2016 when they responded to Palmer where three teens were apprehended for stealing an unmarked Springfield police car.

There were accusations the three teens were verbally and physically assaulted by the detectives. In the video where Bigda threatens to plant drug evidence on one teen in order to send him to prison, Cournoyer is standing next to Bigda.

Cournoyer later admitted he initially lied to investigators about what he witnessed during the arrest and interrogation. Granted immunity from prosecution, he cooperated with federal authorities and testified in December during Bigda's trial in U.S. District Court for civil rights violations that it was Vigneault, not Bigda, who admitted to kicking one of the teens. Bigda was acquitted of the charges.

Public disclosure of the incident with the teens exposed other questionable actions by the Police Department's Narcotic Unit, eventually leading to the U.S. Department of Justice conducting an independent investigation. That investigation concluded in 2020 with a finding that narcotics detectives routinely violated the civil rights of suspects and supervisors routinely looked the other way.

The unit has since been dismantled, and the city agreed in April to a federal consent decree that calls for major changes in police training, discipline and transparency.

Hurst said he believes all of this should be enough for the city to disqualify Cournoyer for employment as a firefighter.

"Firefighters serve the citizens of Springfield in many ways. They inspire our next generation, give back to the community, and most importantly, are called upon to selflessly risk their own lives to save others," he said. "They work hard to bring honor and integrity to their profession. Allowing Cournoyer to serve by their side is disrespectful to the brave men and women in the fire department who hold themselves to a higher standard."

Hurst said that if Cournoyer failed to disclose his background then he should either resign or be fired. And, the counselor added, if the Fire Department knew of his past but hired him anyway, then someone needs to explain why.

"Everybody knows it's the same guy," Hurst said. "Everyone from the top down knew it was the same guy."

Payne said that Hurst is sharing "misinformation" about the situation.

"It is important to note that Mr. Cournoyer had every legal right to take the state civil service exam and seek a position with the Springfield Fire Department," Payne said.

Cournoyer was "within the top tier" on the candidate list compiled by the state Department of Civil Service. He is also a veteran, having served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps and is a resident of Springfield, Payne said.

He noted that Cournoyer was also hired by the Fire Department while the city was still operating under a long-time federal consent decree regulating hiring practices for the Police and Fire departments.

The solicitor also noted that prior to his resigning from the Police Department, Cournoyer had received his certification from the state Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Commission, Payne said.

Cournoyer "cooperated fully with the US Attorney's investigation and was never indicted or charged with any crimes," Payne said.

The Fire Department webpage says anyone seeking to be a firefighter needs to be at least 19 years old, score well on the civil service written exam and pass a physical abilities test and a medical examination

Candidates are also rated on character and "may be disqualified for evidence of character clearly unsuited for fire services. Most municipalities conduct a comprehensive background check prior to appointment."

Payne said Cournoyer "is entitled to the same hiring opportunities afforded to every other qualified citizen."

He said that if the city chose to ignore his civil service ranking and hire someone else, Cournoyer would have grounds to appeal and likely would win a reversal.

Hurst responded, "We are in trouble as a city if our solicitor doesn't see a problem with this hiring."

He urged other councilors to join him in speaking out. " We owe it to our residents to have a higher standard for those individuals charged with serving and protecting our residents and this hiring is a bad precedent to set for everyone involved," Hurst said.

According to city records, Cournoyer had a base salary of $70,600, but in 2021 had a gross salary of $113,000 with overtime pay.

The base salary for a firefighter is $60,125. A review of salaries from last year showed that when overtime is included, many firefighters earned between $70,000 and $89,000, with one earning as much as $102,000.

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