Saturday, September 30, 2023

Violence overshadows annual outdoor sheriff’s potluck

But earlier this year, gun violence threatened to rise on the streets of Springfield before a crowd of more than 2,000 politicians, law enforcement officers, and supporters at the Springfield Lodge of Elks at 440 Tiffany Street.

Cocchi, who didn’t attend the picnic after testing positive for COVID, sees the annual event as an opportunity for people and elected officials to speak out about what’s going on in their neighborhoods and their daily lives.

“People want people to put their guns down,” said State Senator Adam Gomez, D-Springfield. “Crime is the number one issue. The number one problem is that it affects everyone.”

He said violence is no longer just what people see as a “bad neighborhood” issue.

“It’s even reaching out to another community that I represent, which is Chicopee,” he said.

State Representative Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, was also at the cookout. He, too, hears increasing fears of violence and voter fear.

“They want more community policing,” Gonzalez said. “They want more police presence.”

Gonzalez recalled his time at City Hall as an assistant in the mayor’s office from 1996 to 2004 under Michael Albano. The municipal police then lowered the number of murders, he said.

But it needs resources and coordination, he said.

Any progress against violence — including anti-gang programs, job training, and the kind of drug treatment and mental health care that could have prevented the recent Berkshire Avenue shooting, as well as money and resources — can result from the political will that breeds within one to “event like a cookout,” said retired sheriff Michael Ashe.

“Life is about relationships,” said Ashe, 83. “It’s a community.”

Ashe began the tradition of a summer political meeting in 1977, two years after taking office. Over the years, it became a significant date in the local political calendar, even attracting senior elected officials from Boston.

The year 1996 is famous for when then-US Senator John Kerry and then-Governor Bill Weld, facing each other in the Senate, climbed onto Ashe’s folding picnic tables for an impromptu debate.

“We need to let them know we’re in western Massachusetts,” Ashe said.

He commended Cocchi’s efforts, particularly the rehabilitation programs, and said the city and state were right to flood the School Street neighborhood with police following the violent incidents there. After two people were killed in the neighborhood on Wednesday, June 7, the Springfield Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department searched the area and the Springfield Gardens Apartments. Within eight days, the police arrested 44 people, disbanded prostitution activities, and confiscated weapons and drugs.

“He’s tough,” Ashe said of the current sheriff. “You have to be. But there’s a big heart in there.”

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