Pittsfield Petitioners Critical of Mayor's Police Advisory Committee
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Petitioners behind an effort to establish a citizen's police oversight committee say the mayor's proposal is destined to fail.
Last fall, Igor Greenwald headed an effort to petition the city to create a new Police Oversight Committee. Mayor Linda Tyer has since rewritten the ordinance that created one years ago. But Greenwald and others say Tyer has essentially gutted the intent.
"The mayor's proposal doesn't provide even the appearance of accountability and its symbolic value is undercut by the bad faith her administration has shown to get this here," Greenwald said.
Greenwald envisions a group that will have subpoena power and is able to field citizen's complaints of police misconduct. The group would be able to have private meetings to investigate the complaint and ultimately dish out a punishment for officer misconduct.
The mayor's board, however, does not give the committee that authority. It will not allow the group to conduct its own interviews and the documentation made available would be the internal affairs report prepared by the department, and only after the investigation is completed.
"The mayor proposes a board that would almost entirely reliant on police reports which will have little choice but to rubber stamp. It will not be able to question the police personnel directly involved in the citizen's complaint or to conduct its own fact-finding. Given the police chief's stance, every Pittsfield Police officer already knows that any unflattering conclusions by this review panel will not affect their career or standing with the department," Greenwald said.
Greenwald claims the mayor and city solicitor told them in January that such a committee wouldn't legally be able to have that authority. But he said Springfield and Cambridge have exactly that. He said when he pushed the mayor on why it would be illegal here and not there, she shut down communication. The ordinance was drafted without their input, he said.
In Springfield, he said, the police chief would dish out a punishment to a violating officer at least equivalent to the recommendation from the city's Community Police Hearing Board. The mayor's proposal doesn't give that authority.
He also questioned the lack of other regulations among the makeup of the committee. The mayor's plan is to have 13 members, all appointed by the administration, with three of them being representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the NAACP, and the Berkshire Immigration Center.
Greenwald said it doesn't bar current or recently retired city employees and their families.
"A future mayor will be able to pack the board with recently retired or even current police officers," he said.
Greenwald is now preparing his own proposal for such a committee and plans to present it at the next meeting. He said in his proposal, he will make the case as to why such a group is needed in the city.
"We will document the desperate need for oversight, given the long list of the Police Department's abuses and failures. This is a force that has recently yielded a whole basket of bad apples who until the moment they were fired or charged with a serious crime, we presented as fine, well-trained officers. This is a department that has repeatedly violated the rights of innocent bystanders and people that were trying to help," Greenwald said.
Later he added, "let's all hope it won't take another police killing in this city for the mayor and City Council to realize that the fight against abuses of power begins at home."
School Committee member and NAACP President Dennis Powell joined in Greenwald's opposition. He cited the Affirmative Action Committee and the Human Rights Commission as two groups that were formed with similar limitations. He said the former no longer meets and more often than not, someone with a complaint will go directly to the state rather than the Human Rights Commission because they have lost confidence in the group.
"I think the mayor is sincere with what she is trying to do, I just think the makeup is entirely incorrect," Powell said. "I really think this is something we really need to give serious thought to."
He added that 13 people are too much for the committee while others have as little as five.
Drew Herzig sits on the Human Rights Commission and he called the mayor's petition "a long way from the goal." He said developing a true oversight commission would help build trust between the public and the police.
"It is hard to build trust when there is a power imbalance," Herzig said.
The city had a Police Advisory Committee for about three years when former Mayor Daniel Bianchi brought it back into existence. it was similar to the one Tyer proposed, though Tyer's plan does give it a little more authority and direction. But neither went as far as Greenwald and other petitioners want.
The previous Police Advisory Committee was particularly hamstrung in that Chief Michael Wynn had pushed back against topics regarding the department's operations. The committee received one complaint regarding search and seizure procedures and ultimately, the committee couldn't do anything with it. Further complaints never made it to the committee, though members asked for such engagement.
Ultimately, the group was shifted to become a Public Safety Advisory Committee. That is when it expanded its membership. But, that group struggled to find a clear direction and with getting Tyer to make appointments to the group. Eventually, it fizzled out as it couldn't get traction.
The City Council was sent the mayor's petition and Greenwald expects to come in with his own plan. A City Council subcommittee is now tasked with it and there is a chance it rewrites the mayor's petition.
Tags: police advisory,
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