PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The newly created Police Advisory and Review Commission got its feet wet at its first meeting on Tuesday.
The newly crafted committee is eyed to serve as a liaison between the Police Department and the community. It is the most recent iteration of a public safety-focused citizens group after a previous one fell to the wayside.
"We went through a long process of debate and discussion about the purpose of this committee and how it can strengthen our relationship between our police department and the community it serves," Mayor Linda Tyer said.
The push for the new committee began in the city in the winter of 2017 and appointments were made earlier this year. Tuesday's meeting served as mostly an introduction to each other, to Police Chief Michael Wynn, and to the general concept behind what the group is intending to do.
The committee members present for the first meeting were Ellen Maxon, Lynn Wallace, Sheila Sholes-Ross, Alfred Barbalunga, Ivan Victoriano, Drew Herzig, Michael Feldberg, and Sloan Letman. Also appointed but not in attendance were Bruce Stump, Kyreasia Solomon, and Erin Sullivan.
"I think it provides a vital avenue to allow citizens and the Police Department to interface in a way in which both sides will learn from each other," said attorney Stephen Pagnotta, who is serving as the city solicitor.
Pagnotta said the scope of the group is fairly broad. It will be a place for residents to take complaints. It will review policies and procedures in the department and will be asked to review finalized internal affairs reports. And it will provide recommendations to the chief, the mayor. and the City Council.
"The role of this board is to advise and it also has a review function. It is not a hearing board. It doesn't adjudicate or make findings," the attorney said.
That restriction, however, had been hotly debated during the creation of the committee. Resident Igor Greenwald had been an early advocate for a more robust commission, calling on it to be an oversight panel to provide transparency to police operations.
He believed the panel should investigate complaints of police misconduct and have the ability to recommend discipline. But Tyer and Wynn had opposed giving the group such power or access to open internal affairs cases, citing conflicts with Civil Service laws.
Greenwald felt reducing the board to being advisory without authority watered it down and limited transparency.
Nonetheless, the administration feels this version of the committee that was ultimately approved will be a useful tool for providing more transparency than what currently exists. Wynn said complaints are currently all handled internally and another aspect of the group is to provide an avenue for residents to take any complaints somewhere other than to officers.
"We were not in any way opposed to the formation of this board," Wynn said.
The department, the social justice committee with the local NAACP staff, city councilors, and the chief had recently created a list of various training the board members will have to take in the next few months. The training is hoped to provide the members with a better insight into police documents and procedures but also open meeting law and public records, which Wynn said had become problematic in the past.
"This is not the first iteration of this board that I've worked with. If history has shown that there is an issue, that's it," Wynn said.
The members are also being asked to go on ride alongs with officers on a quarterly basis.
"You are going to gain some valuable perspective in a squad car in the dark. The world looks a little different," Wynn said.
Tuesday's meeting was mostly consumed with Wynn outlining the structure of his department.
The city has had a Police Advisory Committee on the books for years but it had been dormant. In 2012, under Mayor Daniel Bianchi, it was reformed with many of the same goals as this new version, minus the responsibility of reviewing closed internal affairs reports.
That group also looked to field complaints from residents but ultimately, over multiple years, the group fielded just one. In that case, a resident had looked to have the procedures for vehicle search and seizure revamped but the group did not take it up in earnest.
But, during four years or so in operation, the group served as an advocate for additional staffing in the department, feeling it was significantly understaffed. It worked with city councilors to develop updated traffic fines. It reviewed early conceptual studies regarding a new police station and began to look for funding opportunities. It helped develop the downtown ambassador program and was behind the implementation of a fence in the median of East Street to address traffic issues caused by jaywalking high school students.
Eventually, the group ran out of ideas and attendance numbers waned. The committee expanded its focus to become a "public safety advisory committee" and looked to delve into issues of health and the Fire Department as well.
But the change of administration didn't serve it well. It struggled to get members appointed and meetings became less frequent and less attended until eventually, it stopped meeting at all -- though it is still listed on the city's website as having members appointed until as late as this upcoming November.
That committee had a much different feel than the new commission has, however, and that is partly because of the makeup. The last group was all mayoral appointees, which had included the sheriff at one point and representatives from the Housing Authority.
The new commission's membership is guided mostly by community organizations. Those include representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the local chapter of the NAACP, local faith communities, the youth community, and the immigrant community. The mayor then appointed the rest of the 11-member group. The ordinance specifically calls for a diverse set of viewpoints to be presented.
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