Pittsfield Continues Police Oversight Conversation
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement lists eight essentials for a civilian police oversight board: independence, funding, access to critical information, rapport, authority, the ability to review police policies, community support, and transparency.
Igor Greenwald says the mayor's plan for such a board doesn't do that.
"The problem with the mayor's proposal is essentially it is as if somebody in the administration looked at this list of all of the things that make a successful board and decided to check none of the boxes," Greenwald told the Ordinance and Rules Committee.
Greenwald was an early petitioner for a police oversight board and early this year he and other stakeholders met with Mayor Linda Tyer to craft such a group. He envisions it as a group of civilians with the ability to dig into cases of police misconduct, question policies and procedures, and make recommendations for officer discipline and changes to procedures.
He feels with proper authority, the board will serve an important role in providing transparency to the Police Department and holding the department accountable and giving residents more trust.
"The only likely losers from it are officers and officials who don't want to be held accountable," Greenwald said.
The mayor's proposal falls short of those goals, Greenwald said. He said the mayor cut off conversation after only one meeting and put forth her own proposal. Tyer's plan for a Police Advisory Committee is eyed to be stacked with mayoral appointments, has no funding, is only allowed access to internal affairs reports after the police complete an investigation, has already proven to be decisive between the major players, and has no real authority nor specific roadmap as to how the group will operate.
The criteria cited by Greenwald was provided by Megan Whilden, the city's former cultural development director, who said a strong committee would serve a significant role in building trust between citizens and the department.
Greenwald had previously shared his story about the procedures for well-being checks. His son was hauled in by officers a few years earlier based on limited information, he said. He questioned the procedure for handling such requests and he isn't the only one. Elizabeth Calkins provided a similar story of her being arrested during a well-being check.
Jacquelyn Sykes provided another story about her boyfriend being shot and killed by officers. She questioned why it had to happen that way.
In both types of instances, there hadn't been an independent review board to weigh in. Instead, the Police Department handled the incidents with an internal investigation. Greenwald used that as an example of how the committee could work. The group could look at the procedures for such reports as wellbeing checks and adjust the way officers approach it, and it could do an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting to determine if it was mishandled.
The accusations of those wrongdoings didn't sit well with the Pittsfield Police Patrolmen Union (International Brotherhood of Police Officers) 447 and Pittsfield Police Superior Officers Union IBPO 447S. The two unions issued a statement following the testimony of the individuals saying Greenwald's efforts to display those incidents "belittled" the good work officers do every day.
"This, in a job that continues to become more dangerous and thankless each and every day. Mr. Greenwald belittled some of the good work done by officers as 'simple photo opps' and used national statistics to downplay officers shot in the line of duty. The latter is a particular slap in the face as Massachusetts has seen four officers shot since April including the two officers in Falmouth only weeks prior," the union wrote.
The unions refuted the claims that there is no accountability and said that in many of the cases Greenwald had mentioned in making his case for such a group, there had been discipline has been issued. The unions didn't discredit the idea of such a committee but called on it to be "unbiased and without personal agendas." But, with the negative experience Greenwald had, the unions questioned whether he is pushing the group because of a personal vendetta.
Greenwald responded on Monday.
"If any of us decided to discuss our traumas publicly in support of a moderate oversight plan out of a base desire for revenge, that's got to be the single worst revenge anyone has every concocted," Greenwald said.
Greenwald said the issue should "never have been used to create an us-versus-them confrontation" and that such a board would be a "win-win" all around. He said it has been deployed successfully in other parts of the state and country.
Former City Councilor Christine Yon took aim at the financial benefits of such a group. She cited a number of settlements outside of court the city had taken related to the Police Department.
"I believe that an independent police oversight committee is a good idea because I have many questions about how much money this city has spent in legal fees relating to police officers," Yon said.
And that is what the City Council's Ordinance and Rules Committee latched onto. It peppered City Solicitor Richard Dohoney questions about settlements with the Police Department — despite the fact that Dohoney isn't the city's attorney for personnel issues, Fred Dupere is.
Dohoney did, however, say that in most cases it is the city's insurance company which provides the defense. When an outside party sues the city for something frivolous or for something severe like Police misconduct, it is the city's insurance company will pay to defend it, he said. At that point, the company is really litigating for its best interest so if it will cost more to fight it than settle, that's what they'll do, he said.
The settlement is paid by the insurance company, not the city. But, councilors added that those claims do contribute somewhat to the ultimate premium the city pays the insurance company per year.
A detailed accounting of that is what City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo wants. Mazzeo said she is "just not ready" to vote on it without more information. And she is particularly concerned that such oversight committees as Greenwald proposes is rarely seen in Massachusetts outside of Springfield and Cambridge. The committee tabled the discussion again on Tuesday and it will be brought back up in another month.
The mayor's proposal isn't without a lack of support. Drew Herzig and Joanna Rebecca Thompson both said the mayor's plan passes legal muster and provides a level of oversight not currently seen in the city.
"I think this proposal needs to be adopted quickly and we need to move on this in order to ensure the relationships between the police and the community are improved," Thompson said.
Tags: O&R, police advisory,
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