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Williamstown Police Lobby for New Station

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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These stairs could be a daunting obstacle for officers trying to escort an unruly prisoner to the holding cells.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two years ago, Police Sgt. Scott McGowan was on the verge of getting an accused child rapist to confess.

But then the voice of a woman arguing over parking ticket interrupted the confession.

On a different occasion, a rape victim was describing an incident to him and again, the interview was interrupted. This time it was other officers in the next room changing for their shift.

Such are the difficulties police are having using a former fraternity house as their station. After 46 years, it may be time for what McGowan considers the "worst police facility" in the state to be scrapped.

"The time has come. We're a professional organization, held to professional standards and we are easily working in one of the commonwealth's worst and unsafe police facilities," McGowan said during an interview on Monday. "We're operating out of old bedrooms and kitchens."

The town took over the former Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house from Williams College in 1966 and turned the building into Town Hall and a police station. The police have retrofitted their section of the building but with that came a plethora of privacy and safety issues.

"This building was never constructed to be a police facility," McGowan said, president of the Williamstown Police Association.

The town's discussed building a police station in the past but nothing's come of it. This year, McGowan and his officer colleagues could see some action.

Town Manager Peter Fohlin said on Monday night the 2013 budget will include a proposal to set aside $143,000 for engineering and architectural expenses to get the the project started.

Fohlin said a new police station has been discussed for years but when the economy "went south" two years ago, building projects went on hold. Last year, some money was going to be budgeted for a new station but put on hold because the Milne Public Library was "geared up" for an expansion, which was later delayed.

"Our Police Department does a really fine job with a less-than-adequate facility," Fohlin said. "We have talked about a police station off and on for the last few years."

McGowan, as president of the police union, wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen asking for a study of the building. The letter outlined many of the station's problems — from poor ventilation to lack of locker rooms to exposure of police records. That letter can be found in its entirety below.

The station has only one egress, which is not handicapped accessible, and no area for interrogations, he said on Monday. There is only one "multipurpose" room with the proper recording equipment for interrogations but that is also the room for filing complaints, taking fingerprints and other business. Right outside that door is the dispatchers and the main desk, he said.

Offices have been used for non-recorded interviews but then the interviewee could access the police computers and records — while the displaced officers could not. To get to those rooms, victims or criminals need to be "paraded" through the entire station, McGowan said.

The floor tiles in the basement are a constant reminder of what the police station used to be before the town took over the building in 1966.
In the basement, there are two holding cells that do not separate men from women nor adults from juveniles. Officers have to bring prisoners down a narrow staircase, which poses a liability to the town, McGowan said. A basement storage space with tiles still bearing the Phi Gamma Delta name overflows into the hallway in front of the cells.

Suspects can be held multiple days in those cells, particularly on the weekend. But they do not have access to a shower, would be unable to brush their teeth and have no area to get fresh air, he said.

"The conditions are short of barbaric," McGowan said. "We are a full-time, professional agency and we feel we should be in a modern building."

McGowan said officers making multiple arrests about four years ago after finding 80 bags of heroin during a traffic stop were forced to transport the suspects to the North Adams Police Department. That was after they "doubled up" the cells, held one person in the multipurpose room and had two of the suspects spend an extended period of time in the back of the cruisers.

While he said that type of situation is rare,  it does happen and the departments deals with more than just minor violations. Whether it be violent and out-of-control people under the influence of drugs or alcohol or serious felonies, the police see it all, he said.

The department handles between 12,000 to 15,000 calls for service a year and average an arrest every other day, statistics McGowan said he does not think residents know about despite being published in the annual town report. Last year, police made a 196 arrests.

"Williamstown is certainly a safe community. However, we are not immune from some of the ills of society," McGowan said. "Of those 196 arrests, some are serious felonies."

The multi-purpose room is the only room equipped with proper recording equipment for interviews but it is right next to the only public entrance and the walls are thin.
A new station has been on McGowan's radar since he took a job with the department in 1994. After being elected as union president last January, he is now making it a priority.

"We don't want to give any type of impression that this is a controversial move or that we are trying to stir up any controversy," McGowan said. "It's time to have the discussion ...  the building is a liability to the town."

In McGowan's letter, he asks the Selectmen to fund a study. Fohlin, on the other hand, can already envision the new building.

On Monday night, Fohlin said building the new station on the south side of Town Hall, where his office is, will solve two problems. The current meeting room could be expanded into the area now used by the administrative assistant, adding needed space, and the police could get a new station out where his "walled-in summer porch" of an office is.
Williamstown Police New Station Letter To Board of Selectmen
Tags: building project,   police,   police station,   

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